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A new Harvard University study on medical malpractice lawsuits is drawing conflicting opinions from lawyers and doctors, who are at odds over whether frivolous lawsuits are clogging the courts. The study, reported in the May 11 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that the courts are doing an effective job of rejecting frivolous claims, but that administrative costs of litigation are exorbitant. The study, conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, found that more than 90% of claims involved a severe injury. Of those, 26% resulted in death and 80% in disability. A total of 63% of the injuries were due to error. The remaining 37% lacked evidence of error. The study found that 15% of the claims that it examined were the result of verdicts, which averaged nearly $800,000, compared with $460,000 for settlements. It also found that plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail at trial, winning 21% of contested cases. A total of 61% of the examined cases were settled. The study, which analyzed 1,452 closed malpractice claims from 1984 to 2004, also found that a large majority of groundless claims-72%-did not receive compensation. “Some critics have suggested that the malpractice system is inundated with groundless lawsuits . . . . [T]hese findings cast doubt on that view by showing that most malpractice claims involve medical error and serious injury, and that claims with merit are far more likely to be paid than claims without merit,” said David Studdert, report lead author. The American Trial Lawyers Association and patient-advocacy groups hailed the report, saying it concluded what they’ve been arguing all along. “The overall point here is that the legal system actually does work in med-mal cases,” said attorney Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the New York-based Center for Justice and Democracy, which advocates for patients having fair and open access to the courts. “It does a good job of screening out the frivolous cases from the ones that have merit. And the notion that the system is overburdened with high jury verdicts is also undermined by this study.” AMA has different view But the American Medical Association has a different take on the report, instead focusing on the number of groundless suits that do go forward. “[The] study is proof positive that meritless medical liability lawsuits are clogging the courts, with 40% of lawsuits filed with either no verifiable medical injuries or errors,” said American Medical Association board member Cecil Wilson. “Of the cases that go to trial, physicians are found not negligent 83% of the time, but defense costs average more than $90,000 and time away from patient care. As the study points out, ‘the overhead costs of malpractice litigation are exorbitant,’ ” Wilson added.

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