Uncovering the Silent Victims of the American Medical Liability System

44 Pages Posted: 17 Sep 2012 Last revised: 19 Mar 2013

Date Written: February 1, 2013


An often overlooked problem with the current medical liability system is the vast number of medical errors that go uncompensated. Although studies indicate that one percent of hospital patients are victims of medical negligence, fewer than two percent of these injured patients file claims. In this Article, I explain that many victims of medical malpractice do not file claims because they are unable to find attorneys willing to take their cases. I conduct the first national survey of attorneys that explores medical malpractice victims’ access to the civil justice system. The results from the survey indicate that the economic reality of litigation forces many contingency fee attorneys to reject legitimate cases. In fact, over 75 percent of the attorneys in my survey indicate that they reject more than 90 percent of the cases that they screen. The attorneys explain that insufficient damages and high litigation expenses are their primary reasons for rejecting cases and that several tort reforms have reduced their willingness to accept cases. Moreover, the majority of the attorneys respond that they have threshold damage values, below which they will not even consider accepting a case. In fact, over half of the attorneys responded that, even for a case they are almost certain to win on the merits, they will not accept the case unless expected damages are at least $250,000. For a case in which winning is less certain, most attorneys require minimum expected damages of $500,000 to accept the case. Because of the high cost of medical malpractice litigation, contingency fee attorneys simply cannot economically justify taking cases with damages below these thresholds. To understand the extent of the access to justice problem I use private industry claims data to show that 95 percent of medical malpractice victims will find it extremely difficult to find legal representation unless their damages are significantly larger than the typical damages for their types of injuries. Thus, the medical liability system silences many legitimate victims of medical malpractice.

Keywords: torts, medical malpractice, access to justice

JEL Classification: K, K13

Suggested Citation

Shepherd, Joanna, Uncovering the Silent Victims of the American Medical Liability System (February 1, 2013). Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 67, 2014, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2147915 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2147915

Joanna Shepherd (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-8957 (Phone)

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