▪ Objective: To explore how frequently physicians lose medical malpractice cases despite providing standard care and to assess whether severity of patient injury influences the frequency of plaintiff payment.
▪ Design: Retrospective cohort study.
▪ Setting: Physicians from the state of New Jersey insured by one insurance company from 1977 to 1992.
▪ Participants: A total of 12 829 physicians involved in 8231 closed malpractice cases.
▪ Measurements: Physician care and claim severity were prospectively determined by the insurance company using a standard process.
▪ Results: Physician care was considered defensible in 62% of the cases and indefensible in 25% of the cases, in almost half of which the physician admitted error. In the remaining 13% of cases, it was unclear whether physician care was defensible. The plaintiff received a payment in 43% of all cases. Payment was made 21% of the time if physician care was considered defensible, 91% if considered indefensible, and 59% if considered unclear. The severity of the injury was classified as low, medium, or high in 28%, 47%, and 25% of the cases, respectively. Severity of injury had a small but significant association (P < 0.001) with the frequency of plaintiff payment (low severity, 39%; medium severity, 43%; and high severity, 47%). The severity of injury was not associated with the payment rate in cases resolved by a jury (low severity, 23%; medium severity, 25%; and high severity, 23%).
▪ Conclusions: In malpractice cases, physicians provide care that is usually defensible. The defensibility of the case and not the severity of patient injury predominantly influences whether any payment is made. Even in cases that require a jury verdict, the severity of patient injury has little effect on whether any payment is made. Our findings suggest that unjustified payments are probably uncommon.