From analyzing test results to prescribing medications to performing delicate surgical procedures, physicians in all capacities do life-saving work. But practicing medicine doesn’t always go according to plan. And when it goes awry, there’s one thing you can count on:
A malpractice allegation.
Physicians across all specialties are subject to malpractice claims and lawsuits. In fact, it’s much more common than you may even realize. And when it happens to you, it can be a frightening experience.
Which physicians get sued for malpractice the most? What are they sued for? What can you do to protect yourself against unsubstantiated allegations?
Here’s our complete guide to medical malpractice payouts and what to expect.
Medical Malpractice: What Every Physician Fears
Malpractice is one word that no physician ever wants to hear (or be accused of). But it happens all too often.
If a patient suffers harm due to your medical care (or your negligence in providing the proper standard of care), they have the right to sue you for monetary damages. The patient will need to prove their case, and the physician will have the ability to defend themselves.
Even if you know that the lawsuit is unwarranted, it can still be a scary experience for a physician.
In 2018, medical malpractice claims paid out over four billion dollars. That figure was a 2.91% increase from 2017. Across all medical malpractice allegations, the average suit paid out $348,065 to the affected patient (or their family).
Patients can sue for various reasons, but three main reasons account for over 60% of all medical malpractice claims.
29% are the result of the wrongful death of a patient. 18.7% are because a patient suffered a permanent injury. 12.3% involve patient injuries, such as paraplegia, that require the patient to have lifelong care.
A wrongful death case is the most common type of malpractice claim filed against a physician. But physicians can be sued for a vast array of reasons, ranging from everything from misdiagnosis to a blood clot to brain damage to amputation.
And while these numbers are staggering, there is one bright spot: 96.5% of all medical malpractice lawsuits were paid due to settlements. Only 3.5% of all malpractice cases were a result of a court judgment.
What to Expect During the Malpractice Process
There are several steps involved in the process of a malpractice lawsuit. If you’ve never been sued before, it is vital to understand how the process works to prepare yourself better and defend against the claim.
Step 1: The Alleged Error
The first step in the process is one physicians always try to avoid: making an alleged error. One that puts them in the compromising position to be sued in the first place.
The moment a patient decides that your care has caused them harm, the process begins.
Step 2: The Patient Sues
Once a patient decides to sue, you will receive notice of the claim. The patient’s lawyer may also make a discovery request or require a deposition.
Step 3: Informing Your Malpractice Insurance Provider
As soon as you learn that a patient has made a claim against you, you must inform your medical malpractice insurance provider.
Step 4: Safeguarding the Records
As a defendant in a malpractice case, the patient’s records and medical charts will be your best defense. As soon as you hear of a claim, preserve and safeguard all documents related to that patient and the alleged claim.
Step 5: The Discovery Process
Once a medical malpractice lawyer files a claim with the court, the discovery process begins. This is the part of the process that requires the physician to invest both time and money into their defense.
During discovery, you’ll need to review all the events surrounding the claim. Then gather all related documents, and sit for a deposition to make your official statement on the record.
The attorney-client relationship is a unique one. You can be sure that your patient’s attorney will do everything in their power to win the case for their client. You’ll need to do your homework and conduct thorough research before you sit for your deposition.
Step 6: Mediation
You can settle a claim out of court through the process of mediation. This is how most malpractice cases are handled — most physicians don’t find themselves at a defense table in a courtroom.
Step 7: The Trial
If a confidential settlement cannot be reached through mediation, you’ll go to trial.
You can expect to be out of work for as little as a few days or up to approximately two weeks in this scenario. It all depends on how long the trial takes and how many witnesses and expert testimonies are given on the stand.
Going to trial is always the least preferable option, as being unable to work may also cut into your salary.
Medical Malpractice Payouts Vary by Region
According to the National Practitioner Data Bank, $38.5 billion dollars have been paid in malpractice claims in the ten year period from 2009-2018. But some states have paid much more than others, particularly those on the east coast.
The state of New York tops the list with payouts totaling $7.025 billion dollars over the ten year period. The second highest paying state is Pennsylvania, with a total of $3.416 billion.
The following states round out the list of the top ten states with the greatest malpractice payouts:
- Florida: $2.488 billion
- New Jersey: $2.479 billion
- California: $2.453 billion
- Illinois: $2.291 billion
- Massachusetts: $1.612 billion
- Georgia: $1.097 billion
- Maryland: $993.1 million
- Texas: $945.9 million
The ten states with the lowest total payouts are as follows:
- North Dakota: $28.3 million
- Vermont: $44.7 million
- Wyoming: $51.9 million
- South Dakota: $60.1 million
- Alaska: $76.1 million
- Delaware: $103.3 million
- Montana: $119.6 million
- Idaho: $120.3 million
- District of Columbia: $121.3 million
- Nebraska: $135.3 million
Only six states in the U.S. impose caps and limitations on how much can be paid out in monetary damages for malpractice. These states are Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Virginia.
Twenty states have no caps or limits as to how much money can be awarded in a malpractice suit. It comes as no surprise that some of the states without caps on damages include New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, and New Jersey – the four states that consistently pay the most.
As a physician, where you work dramatically affects your salary. But it also affects how much you can expect your insurance to pay, should you be found guilty of malpractice, medical negligence, or decide to settle out of court on a malpractice claim.
Medical Malpractice Payouts Vary by Specialty
Depending on your medical specialty, you may be at greater or lower risk for a malpractice claim. In some specialties, the vast majority of physicians will be sued for malpractice at some point during their careers.
According to the Medscape Malpractice Report of 2019, 52% of physicians say they were shocked at having been sued. With 14% claiming they were not surprised at all.
Of all the medical specialties that exist, psychologists and dermatologists find themselves defending against malpractice claims the least. But physicians in other specialties have quite a different experience.
Medscape reports that physicians in these specialties are sued for malpractice the most:
- Surgeons: 85%
- Urologists: 84%
- Otolaryngologists: 83%
- OBGYNs and women’s health specialists: 83%
- Radiologists: 76%
- Emergency medicine specialists: 76%
- Cardiologists: 65%
- Gastroenterologists: 63%
- Anesthesiologists: 62%
Physicians in the above-mentioned fields are much more likely to experience a malpractice suit at some point in their career. If you are a specialist in one of these fields, don’t be shocked if a medical malpractice claim (or two or three) comes your way over time.
Keep in mind that being sued doesn’t mean that you’ll have to pay a settlement at all.
As a neurosurgeon, your patient will need to be able to prove that their brain injury or aneurysm was a direct result of your failure to provide proper care.
As an OBGYN who performs routine C-sections, your patient will need to prove that your lack of care is the reason for a child’s birth injury.
As a hospitalist, your patient will need to prove that your mistake in the emergency room led to them being undiagnosed for an illness that could have been treated sooner or more effectively.
These can be difficult claims to prove. The more evidence and proof you have that you did nothing wrong, the less likely you are to have to pay a medical malpractice settlement.
Whether you’re sued by a 70-year-old man with pre-existing conditions or a healthy 25-year-old woman with a clean medical history, the patient always has the burden of proof.
More info: How Much Does Malpractice Insurance Cost?
Malpractice Cases: Private Practices vs. Hospitals
While personal injury lawyers often work on automobile accidents and nursing home neglect cases, malpractice attorneys specialize in handling malpractice claims. And sometimes, those claims are against the hospital rather than the individual physician.
Often, a patient can opt to sue the hospital if the physician involved works there or if the injury was the result of negligence on behalf of the staff. From not making a timely diagnosis to prescribing the wrong medication to wrongful death, there are several reasons why a hospital may be on the hook for malpractice instead of the individual physician.
In 2019, one such case in Maryland against the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center resulted in the largest medical malpractice verdict in history.
In the Bayview case, a Maryland mother successfully sued the hospital for injuries caused to her child at birth, a child that now has cerebral palsy. Her lawyers proved the hospital staff gave the pregnant mother inaccurate information about the baby’s birth. The jury awarded the mother a staggering $205 million.
Cases (and verdicts) such as this are not the norm, but they can be costly when they happen.
How to Protect Yourself Against Malpractice Claims
According to one Philadelphia law firm, approximately 85,000 medical malpractice claims are filed each year. However, an estimate of more than one million patients suffer from medical injuries due to malpractice every year. And that means that the majority of injured patients never file a claim at all.
But do not allow these facts to cause you to assume that your patients won’t file a claim against you.
Physicians in all specialties should have malpractice insurance, even though federal law does not require it. There are 32 states in the U.S. that don’t require it at all or don’t have minimum carrying requirements. If you are a physician in a state that doesn’t require it, and you choose not to get it, you’re only putting yourself at greater risk.
We recommend that all physicians treat malpractice insurance the same way they treat homeowner and motor vehicle insurance: a requirement that you cannot do without.
Without it, you’re putting yourself and your personal finances at unnecessary risk.
Further Reading: Full Guide to Physicians Malpractice Tail Coverage.
Whether you’re a cardiologist treating a patient who recently had a heart attack or an oncologist tending to a patient with breast cancer, there is always the risk of something going wrong. And that means that you’re always at risk for a medical malpractice case.
The best way to protect yourself against a malpractice claim is to have a strong policy through a stable insurance company.
For more information on malpractice insurance providers, contact Physicians Thrive now.
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