Medical malpractice: Are lawsuits out of control?

Congressional Quarterly Weekly
Friday, March 14, 2003

Forrest Bounds was born with a rare but correctable condition: a cystlike sac near his bladder that within a few weeks grew big enough to block the normal flow of urine. Something went wrong, however, in trying to correct the problem: The urethra, the canal that carries urine away from the bladder, was ruptured. As a result, the three-year-old has to urinate through a hole doctors created in his scrotum. He probably will be permanently incontinent and sexually impaired.

The opposing interest groups make their respective cases with a welter of wrenching anecdotes and conflicting statistics. Lawyer and consumer groups cite cases, such as Forrest's, of patients who have been permanently disfigured, maimed or brain-damaged by grievous medical errors. They cite statistics that show plaintiffs win only 20 percent of the time and that settlements and awards in malpractice cases have been relatively stable for more than a decade.

"Forget the headline verdicts," says Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy, a New York-based consumer advocacy group. "When you look at the actual payouts, they are extremely low."

The drop in claims illustrates what some say is the major public benefit of allowing malpractice victims to recover damages from doctors or hospitals responsible for their injuries: deterrence. "The threat of liability is what works as a deterrent to improve patient safety," says consumer advocate Doroshow.

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