In 2006, researchers at Harvard University announced the results of a study showing that most negligence claims involve medical error and serious injury, and concluded “portraits of a malpractice system that is stricken with frivolous litigation are overblown.”i The researchers found that few claims were without merit, and those that were generally did not receive any money. Most negligence claims were meritorious, with 97 percent of claims involving medical injury and 80 percent involving physical injuries resulting in major disability or death. Few claims where there was not error were ever paid. In fact, researchers found the reverse--non-payment of claims where error was involved—was a bigger problem.
Co-author William Sage commented, “These findings are absolutely no surprise to any of us in the policy community. They are consistent with everything we suspected and learned from research over last 20 years, which is that the major problem out there is medical errors that are not compensated, rather than frivolous claims that are compensated.”ii
This conclusion did not surprise the patient safety movement. Kaiser Family Foundation President Drew Altman said, “Maybe the question instead of 'Why do we have so many lawsuits?' is 'Why do we have so few?”iii
According to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) only 4.4 percent of the civil caseload is comprised of tort cases. Of that subsection, just 2.8 percent comprise medical negligence cases. And even that tiny number has declined by 18 percent between 2000 and 2009.iv According to NCSC, "Despite their continued notoriety, rarely does a medical malpractice caseload exceed a few hundred cases in any one state in one year."v Data from other sources such as the National Practitioner Databank, to which all physicians’ medical malpractice payments must be reported, confirms the same downward trend.
When the number of medical negligence payouts made every year is compared to the number of suspected deaths from preventable medical errors, it is easy to see why researchers have concluded that there are too few malpractice claims, not too many.vi