Trends: Medical Malpractice Case Outcomes

A snapshot of recent insurance claims and trials over medical malpractice.

Like most injury-related lawsuits, medical malpractice cases can be difficult to predict. A lot of variables go into the eventual success or failure of a claim, and even when a claim does succeed, it’s difficult to anticipate how much compensation a medical malpractice plaintiff can expect to receive.

That being said, an examination of a few hard numbers from the real world can help to fill in some of the gray area when it comes to medical malpractice cases. In this article we’ll examine the findings of a few (fairly) recent federal government studies focused on trends in the outcomes of medical malpractice cases -- from insurance claims to lawsuits and trials. (For more data on medical malpractice cases, check out National Statistics on Medical Malpractice.)

Medical Malpractice Insurance Claim Trends

An examination of the outcomes of medical malpractice insurance claims in seven states showed that patients who alleged injury recovered no compensation at all in the majority of these claims. This study (conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics) looked at the progress of medical malpractice claims in Florida, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, and Texas from 2000 to 2004.

Here are a few highlights:

The majority of medical malpractice insurance claims were closed without any compensation to the claimant. For example, in Maine, Missouri, and Nevada, about one-third of medical malpractice insurance claims resulted in a payout to the patient. And in Illinois, only 12 percent of medical malpractice insurance claims resulted in a payout.

Lifelong and serious injuries received the highest payouts. For claimants in Missouri and Florida who suffered grave, permanent, and lifelong injuries, the median payouts were between $278,000 and $350,000. On the flip side, payouts were lowest for injuries that were alleged to be minor, temporary, and emotion-based.

Payouts increased as claims progressed. Medical malpractice insurance claim payouts were lowest when the claim process was closed before a lawsuit was filed, and (not surprisingly) highest when paid out after completion of a trial in court. In three states, when claims were decided via trial, median payouts were 2.5 times larger than those paid in claims that were settled before trial. But in those same three states (Florida, Nevada, and Texas), trial decision were a rarity for medical malpractice claims, as they only occurred in 5% of cases.

Median payouts are on the rise. In Missouri, for example, the median insurance payout for a medical malpractice claim was $33,000 in 1990, but by 2004 that had bumped up to $150,000. Here’s a look at increases in median payouts over that same period for the other states in the study: 36% in Florida, 49% in Illinois, 57% in Massachusetts, 26% in Nevada, and 27% in Texas.   

Medical Malpractice Trial Trends

In 2001, the U.S. DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) turned its attention to medical malpractice cases that reached the courtroom trial phase of a lawsuit, examining the outcomes of more than 1,100 such trials in the 75 most populous counties in the U.S. As it turns out, plaintiffs in medical malpractice trials win verdicts in about 27% of cases, which is about one-half the 52% success rate of plaintiffs in trials across all kinds of injury cases (car accidents, slip and fall cases, etc.).

Let’s look at some takeaways from this study:

Most medical malpractice trials involve allegations of serious harm. In about 90% of these trials, the plaintiffs were alleging that conduct amounting to medical malpractice caused permanent injury (57% of trials) or death (33%).

Surgeons were the defendants in half of the medical malpractice trials. Non-surgeon doctors accounted for about one-third of the 1,156 defendants, while dentists made up five percent.

Awards in med mal trials dwarf those in other injury-related cases. After a successful medical malpractice trial, the plaintiff in a medical malpractice trial received a median award of $425,000, which is about 16 times larger than the average award across all other personal injury trials ($27,000).

In 2005, the BJS took another look at the outcomes of 2,449 medical malpractice trials across the U.S. The results showed that the success rate for plaintiffs had dropped a little -- from 27% in 2001 to less than 25% in 2005.

Learn more about what to expect in your case in our Diagram of a Medical Malpractice Case section.

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