Most medical malpractice claims closed in Tennessee last year resulted in no payment of damages to patients and their families, according to a recent report.
However, the approximately 16 percent of claims that were paid accounted for more than $119 million in damages.
Doctors say the Department of Commerce and Insurance report, which reviewed the 2,827 malpractice claims closed in 2005, exposes the millions of dollars it takes to defend malpractice cases, even unsuccessful ones, with costly lawyer fees and investigation.
For the lawyers who represent patients and families claiming to be victims of egregious medical errors, the report disproves claims that juries are awarding massive damages.
In 2004, the Legislature passed a law requiring the Department of Commerce and Insurance to issue annual reports on medical malpractice for the years 2005 though 2008, in an effort to spot trends.
“We’ve had over 800 different doctors a year getting sued in Tennessee,” said Steven C. Williams, president and chief executive officer of Brentwood-based State Volunteer Mutual Insurance Co.
The doctor-owned company insures about 10,000 Tennessee physicians and 6,000 from surrounding states.
Of the 2,827 claims that closed in 2005, 461 of them were resolved through settlements rather than jury verdicts. Slightly more than 83 percent of the closed claims resulted in no payout.
The cost of defending those claims was almost $62 million, the report said.
The report also shows that of the claims closed in 2005, five resulted in jury verdicts for the plaintiffs, with the judgments totaling a little more than $6 million.
In 2004, six juries in the state awarded damages totaling $1.9 million.
Brentwood lawyer John Day, who represents patients and their families in medical malpractice cases, said that figure illustrates the myth of juries awarding outrageously high damages.
A Nashville jury awarded a West Tennessee family $16 million in 2005 after a doctor accidentally cut out 90 percent of a child’s bladder during a surgery. A judge knocked the judgment down to $6 million and the state Court of Appeals recently upheld the judge’s decision.
That case was not captured in the report, presumably because the case is still being appealed. Morris, of the Department of Commerce and Insurance, said only amounts paid in 2005 were included in the report.
The fact that a judge knocked down the award to $6.5 million means the system works, Day said.
Future reports will show how often health care providers win in jury trials and the amount of money that patients’ lawyers make off malpractice cases.
Anderson, who defends health care providers, said unusual cases are the ones that end up in front of a jury, because bad cases get settled before trial.
The “defendant and the defendant’s counsel evaluates those cases that they think are dangerous and difficult and those are usually settled,” he said.
Information from: The Tennessean, www.tennessean.com
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