Five Doctors Tell 'How I Survived After Being Sued'

Mark Crane


April 26, 2017

In This Article

Getting Sued Is Extremely Emotional

"Don't take it personally. It's just business." That's what gangsters in The Godfather say to a rival mobster they are about to rub out.

In the same vein, plaintiffs' attorneys often think doctors shouldn't take medical malpractice suits personally. But these lawyers sue doctors for a living.

For physicians, getting sued is intensely personal. The anxiety, anguish, depression, sense of betrayal, and shame it causes can last a lifetime. One obstetrician/gynecologist we spoke with broke down in tears when recalling the emotional distress she felt at being sued. And she won that lawsuit 21 years ago.

"Getting sued is a total affront to everything doctors have trained to do," says Alan Woodward, MD, an emergency department physician in Concord, Massachusetts, and past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. "It's devastating to your whole professional psyche. Many doctors leave practice, retire early, practice defensive medicine, and see patients as potential adversaries for the rest of their careers. While the case is pending, they don't sleep or eat well and are often depressed."

"Even when doctors win in court, they've still lost," he points out. "It may take 6 or more years from the lawsuit until trial. The doctors may have lost perhaps $100,000 in time away from their practices due to depositions and hearings. The lawsuit takes a huge toll on their personal and professional lives," says Dr Woodward, who now works with the Massachusetts Alliance for Communication and Resolution Following Medical Injury, a group that promotes transparent communication, sincere apologies, and fair compensation in cases of avoidable medical harm.

"Doctors often feel betrayed by patients who sue them," notes Doug McCullough, an attorney and assistant vice president for claims for The Doctors Company, the nation's largest professional liability carrier. "They thought of the patient as satisfied and a friend. They think, 'if this patient can sue me, then anyone can'."

"Doctors are used to being in control," he says. "Once they've been sued, they are in an environment with very little control. Medical schools don't teach about malpractice. Doctors think that if they do everything they were taught, they won't be sued. That isn't the reality."

The Doctors Company sponsors weekend retreats for physicians who are in the middle of malpractice cases. The goal is to help the doctor navigate the stress involved. "We invite spouses and discuss what they can expect, legally and emotionally, during the case. Other physicians who've been sued give talks about their experiences and coping mechanisms," he reports. "Litigation is an ongoing stress factor and we haven't done enough to address it."

Other malpractice carriers—including COPIC Insurance Co., which is based in Colorado, and ProAssurance, which is based in Alabama—have similar programs to unite doctors who've been sued so they can share experiences and provide advice to each other.

To illuminate this issue, five doctors describe the emotional stress they went through during their malpractice trials.


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