Study casts doubt on claims that the medical malpractice system is plagued by frivolous lawsuits

2 min read

The debate over medical malpractice litigation, which raged during the last presidential campaign, continues as a hot-button political and health care issue in the U.S. The Senate is expected to vote soon on legislation to impose a federal cap on noneconomic damages in malpractice suits, following on similar bills that passed the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate last year. One popular justification for tort reform is the claim that “frivolous” medical malpractice lawsuits – those lacking evidence of substandard care, treatment-related injury, or both – enrich plaintiffs’ attorneys and drive up health care costs. A new study by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital challenges the view that frivolous litigation is rampant and expensive.

The researchers analyzed past malpractice claims to judge the volume of meritless lawsuits and determine their outcomes. Their findings suggest that portraits of a malpractice system riddled with frivolous lawsuits are overblown. Although nearly one third of claims lacked clear-cut evidence of medical error, most of these suits did not receive compensation. In fact, the number of meritorious claims that did not get paid was actually larger than the group of meritless claims that were paid. The findings appear in the May 11, 2006 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

“Some critics have suggested that the malpractice system is inundated with groundless lawsuits, and that whether a plaintiff recovers money is like a random ‘lottery,’ virtually unrelated to whether the claim has merit,” said lead author David Studdert, associate professor of law and public health at HSPH. “These findings cast doubt on that view by showing that most malpractice claims involve medical error and serious injury, and that claims with merit are far more likely to be paid than claims without merit.”