There are some malpractice suits that are justified. When a real malpractice situation occurs, settlement is certainly reasonable. However many suits are frivolous in nature. This means that the suit is brought about to be a nuisance rather than having merit. When this happens, the lawyers have to calculate how much it’s going to cost to defend the case, and how much it’s going to cost to settle the case.
Many times the cost of defending the case is significantly more than settling it. In these cases, the lawyers will recommend that it be settled. However, this then goes on, the doctor’s record as having a medical malpractice suit that was settled out of court, and any settlement will raise the insurance premiums.
A friend of mine had a patient who fell off of a construction site severely fracturing his leg. He was put into a cast and the doctor, appropriately, made sure that the cast was not too tight. I don’t know the entire details of this except that subsequently the patient’s foot had to be amputated, I was told, from arterial injury secondary to the severe fractures of the leg. The suit against the doctor claimed that the reason the foot was amputated was that the cast was too tight and the doctor did not follow the case close enough. My friend told me that he made sure that the cast was not the problem, but he was sued anyway because they said the cast was too tight. He had been informed, unofficially, that the patient would receive a substantial amount of money in order to sue the doctor rather than the construction company. The orthopedic surgeon was told that this information could not be presented in court.
They subsequently did sue the doctor and a large settlement was reached. When this happens the settlement results in a very significant elevation of the insurance malpractice premiums. This will increase the overhead that has to be met in the practice, and will cause the physician charges to be elevated also. When the case was over, the prosecuting attorney came to my friend and told him that this was nothing personal, and that this was just “business”. My friend has been very bitter about this since.
When a suit is brought that has no merit, there are many aspects that are unacceptable. Besides the possibility that the information can be placed in the local newspaper and will harm the reputation of the individual, he may become the talk of the neighborhood. A big problem is when the children hear of this suit and their friends say their father is a bad doctor.
Another aspect that is very significant are the many, many sleepless nights that occur. The time is spent reviewing what could’ve been done, what should have been done and how could this have been prevented. The usual is that there is probably a 2 to 3 year wait from the time the suit is announced until it goes to court. This is a very stressful time, especially when it is unjustified.
The author is a board-certified General Surgeon who has practiced the specialty of General Surgery for over 30 years. He has achieved the rank of Associate Professor of Surgery in a nearby medical school. He is trying to let the general public know the types of pressures that the medical community has to face today.