Insurance companies might be seeing fewer medical malpractice claims, but they seem to be awarding more money to the injured patients that do make them. A new study found that paid medical malpractice claims declined almost 56 percent between 1992 and 2014, but the average payout for a successful malpractice claim jumped over 23 percent, reaching $353,000 for the 2009-2014 time period.
So what accounts for the decline in claims and rise in payouts? And what does it mean for future medical malpractice plaintiffs?
Fewer Claims = More Money
The research comes from physicians at Brigham and Women's Hospital, who analyzed numbers from a centralized database of paid malpractice claims:
Researchers report that the overall rate of claims paid on behalf of all physicians dropped by 55.7 percent. Pediatricians had the largest decline, at 75.8 percent, and cardiologists had the smallest, at 13.5 percent. After adjusting for inflation, researchers found that the amount of the payment increased by 23.3 percent and was also dependent on specialty. Neurosurgery had the highest mean payment, and dermatology had the lowest. The percentage of payments exceeding $1 million also increased during the same time period.
Dr. Adam Schaffer, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study, speculated that recent tort reform, which places statutory limits on medical malpractice damages, could be responsible for the decline in paid claims. "Fewer attorneys could be interested in taking claims if there's going to be a smaller potential payout, given that most attorneys are paid on a contingency basis," he explained.
Schaffer also pointed to claim screening panels and additional procedural hurdles to explain the decline in claims, but this could also account for the rise in payouts -- if only the most ironclad malpractice claims are being made and meeting the procedural requirements, the average payout per claim would be expected to rise.
What Does It All Mean?
The study could mean that lawyers are more skittish about taking on medical malpractice cases, but those that they do accept might be in for a bigger payday at the end. Medical malpractice claims are complicated, and even just dealing with a physician's insurance company can be difficult. If you've suffered an injury in a medical context, contact and experienced attorney near you.