The National Practitioner Data Bank, a computer database of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that collects information about physicians, has released its annual report concerning medical malpractice payouts. The report, which analyzes medical malpractice claims from 2004 through 2018, highlights important trends in payout amounts throughout the United States. If the changes in 2018 are any indication, 2019 looks like it will also be a year of increased medical malpractice payout amounts throughout the country.
Payout Totals and Averages Nationally and by State
According to the published report, approximately $4,031,987,700 was paid to plaintiffs in medical malpractice lawsuits in 2018. The figure represents a 2.91% increase from the previous year of 2017. Over the course of the 14-year span that the report covers, the total payout amount has varied, sometimes significantly. The total payout for medical malpractice claims in 2004 was the highest year recorded, totaling approximately $4.6 billion. The number steadily decreased over the next eight years, reaching a low in 2012 of approximately $3.5 billion. It increased consistently over the next six years, experiencing jumps by nearly $200 million each year from 2012 to 2014. The payouts were the result of settlements 96.5% of the time, with only 3.5% (and $142,569,750 in total payments) resulting from a court judgment.
The average malpractice payment for 2018 was $348,065, in comparison to 2017, which averaged slightly less than $300,000. Unlike the total payout amount, the average payments experienced less fluctuation throughout the years and remained relatively steady. In 2014, the average malpractice amount was over $250,000 and hovered around the $300,000 mark for nine years.
The average payout amounts, however, might not be the most accurate indicator. As the state-by-state breakdown shows, the average medical malpractice payouts by state vary greatly. New York topped the list, with an average payout of $446,461 in 2018. In New York, 1,535 claims were paid, totaling $685,317,000, and marking an 11% increase from the year prior. The second highest state average was in Pennsylvania, averaging at $405,978 based off 909 claims and a total of $369,034,250. Many states experienced astronomical payout increases over the previous year, such as Minnesota (101%), South Dakota (199%), and Vermont (a whooping 486% increase in 2018). Hawaii, Mississippi, Washington D.C., and North Dakota experienced the biggest average decreases, by 60%, 41%, 76%, and 81% respectively.
Types of Medical Malpractice Claims
In 2018, medical errors related to diagnoses comprised 34.1% of malpractice actions, making it the most frequent claim. Malpractice in regard to surgery, 21.4% was the second-most alleged, with issues related to treatment following in a close third at 21.1%. These numbers are consistent with previous findings, as one study on the rates of medical malpractice lawsuits in the United States between 1992 and 2014 also found that misdiagnosis, surgical errors, and treatment-related mistakes are the most common types of claims.
In terms of damages, 29.7% of the claims resulted in death, 18.7% resulted in major permanent injury, and 12.3% resulted from brain damage, quadriplegia, and other injuries that require lifelong care. Interestingly, the payouts for malpractice claims that allegedly caused death (which average about $386,317 per person) were not as high as brain damage claims, which earned the highest payouts, at $961,185.
The Importance of Medical Malpractice Experts
Any medical malpractice lawsuit needs an expert (or several) to either prove or rebut the allegations. At the basis of every malpractice suit is whether the defendant deviated from the acceptable standard of care and if so, whether such deviation caused the injuries. While the physician’s conduct is dependent upon the particularized facts of the case, the central issue when establishing the standard of care is whether the physician acted as a reasonable professional in their field would under the same or similar circumstances. An expert trained in the particular practice area that is the subject of the litigation is necessary to establish whether such standard was met.
Overall, if the data for 2018 is any predictor, 2019 will likely see a relative increase in total medical malpractice payout amounts (while state-by-state numbers are not as easy to predict). As a whole, the United States is likely to continue an upward trend in terms of medical malpractice litigation, making the need for medical experts all the more pressing.