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Despite the fact that plaintiffs won 2% fewer malpractice cases in 1999, jury awards rose 7%, which is the third year in a row the amounts have climbed, reports Jury Verdict Research, a Horsham, PA, consulting firm. This placed the median medical malpractice award at $800,000 in 1999, up from $750,000 the year before. During the early and mid-1990s, jury awards averaged around $500,000.
Along with trend toward higher awards is a greater tendency for juries to award jumbo monetary judgments, with 45% of awards being in the $1 million and up category during 1998-1999. Only 39% of judgments were in the million-dollar club during the 1997-1998 time period.
These awards are also pushing up the cost of out-of-court settlements. In 1999, the median settlement was $650,000, or 30% more than the year before, says Jury Verdict Research. This, in turn, is pushing up the price of malpractice insurance. During 2001, practices can expect their professional liability rates to rise anywhere from 6% to 50%, with the average increase hovering around 14%, industry observers predict.
The good news is that even though award amounts were up, overall plaintiffs won just 35% of the cases that made it to court in 1999, down 2% from the previous year. There also has been a change in the types of medical malpractice lawsuits being filed by patients. For instance, more claims are being filed against physicians for failing to spot and diagnose a problem. Meanwhile, juries are more likely to order a substantial award if they feel the physician had a financial incentive to order fewer tests or perform less procedures, even if the evidence shows the care given was appropriate.
The cases plaintiffs are most likely to win involved childbirth negligence cases, according to Jury Verdict Research. In 1999, plaintiffs won 47% of the time these cases went to a jury. Next most risky for practitioners: surgical neglect and misdiagnosis cases.
Bottom line: The best way to protect yourself from a malpractice verdict is to practice sound medicine and thoroughly document everything.