Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Malpractice Suits Rarely End Up Costing the Doctor Ultimately, Jurors Find for People They Trust, and Physicians Surpass Other Defendants in Public Trust

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Malpractice Suits Rarely End Up Costing the Doctor Ultimately, Jurors Find for People They Trust, and Physicians Surpass Other Defendants in Public Trust

Article excerpt

Hearing the evidence of surgical mishap, and putting himself in the jury's place, the judge thought this was what one might call an open-and-shut case.

The testimony - and the exhibits - showed beyond doubt that the defendant surgeon had somehow closed up the patient's abdomen leaving behind a ribbon retractor, a piece of thin steel, 13 inches long, one inch wide.

On the X-ray photograph, Plaintiff's Exhibit 1, the offending article stood out like a sword blade, clear and sharp. The judge could not remember ever seeing more conclusive evidence of negligence. Nevertheless, when the jury returned, its verdict exonerated the doctor completely.

Thinking about the malpractice trials he had superintended, the judge realized that over and over a physician who seemed to have plainly erred nonetheless avoided (or, from the plaintiff-patient's view, escaped) legal responsibility for the apparent mistake.

The outcome was not invariable. The judge remembered a seven-figure verdict against a physician whose decimal-point miscalculation had given a newborn 10 times the normal dose of a powerful drug and left her disabled for life.

Still, when patients sue physicians, out of every 100 cases, the doctors win 80. No one can really explain why, in a society which is supposedly litigation-crazed, doctors seem, as a defendant class, to receive such kind treatment by the citizenry - at least those citizens who sit as jurors.

Malpractice litigation is certainly popular. Some people think the medical profession is a victim of its own success. Medicine and surgery have made such advances in diagnostic techniques, methods of treatment, and surgical magic that the public expects a total cure rate.

In part to meet this propensity to sue, many states have developed judicially regulated screening methods, which enable the courts to eliminate plainly frivolous lawsuits. …

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