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Frivolous lawsuits, or any lawsuits, seem far fewer than many claim

One of the biggest debates in the upcoming election is the claim that “frivolous” medical malpractice lawsuits, as well as other suits, are the demise of America, increasing the cost of doctors' insurance and creating a liability crisis.

According to a 1990 Harvard University study, just one out of eight patients who had a valid medical malpractice claim actually filed suit. After examining the records of more than 30,000 patients in New York , considered one of the nation's most litigious states , researchers discovered that, in 1984, nearly 13,000 cases, supported by strong or certain evidence of negligence, were never pursued in court.

In the study, 3.7 percent of all patients suffered from complications caused by doctors, and later studies have concluded this number to be much higher, with estimates reaching 17.7 percent. Complications were as serious as surgical removal of the wrong leg or kidney, brain damage to newborns and transplant procedures that did not match donor and recipient. The National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine in 2000 found between 44,000 and 98,000 patients died every year because of mistakes made by doctors and other healthcare personnel.

The high estimates of medical errors with seemingly few actual medical malpractice lawsuits filed are attributed to a few factors : Many patients are unaware that negligence was the cause for the new medical problem ; some patients are against legal action for human error by medical professionals ; patients with long relationship with their medical providers do not wish to threaten their good standing ; and some patients are afraid that legal action will result in a denial of medical treatment later.

More than two-thirds of the medical malpractice lawsuits filed are dismissed or dropped before they can be settled or brought to trial. Therefore, exorbitant awards never result. When plaintiffs win judgments in a medical malpractice lawsuit, large jury awards are rarely given and the ones that are often get reduced on appeal.

Many frivolous lawsuits do arise, but instead of punishing those few victims of medical error who pursue legal action, it is proposed the efforts to reduce the medical error rate be looked at more closely . By combining this with a better way of weeding out cases without merit, the so-called liability crisis this country is said to be in may no longer threaten those individuals in most need of what our system can offer.

In Louisiana, for example, a malpractice review panel made up of three doctors and an attorney are responsible for ruling on the merit of claims. A patient choosing to file a medical malpractice lawsuit will first submit the case to the panel and wait for the panel's ruling. Even if the panel rules the case has no merit, the plaintiff can still exercise his/her rights by brining the suit, but the panel's report can be filed with the court.


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