Are juries too harsh on malpractice cases?

The severity of malpractice awards are coming under scrutiny after MedStar Harbor Hospital and Johns Hopkins Hospital, both in Baltimore, recently were handed multimillion-dollar judgments, The Baltimore Sun reported.

On Tuesday, a jury ordered MedStar to pay $21 million for a medical malpractice birth injury case, while last month Hopkins was hit with a record-setting $55 million malpractice verdict.

With these hefty awards, some providers are wondering whether hospitals can afford such substantial malpractice costs while continuing to provide care.

Malpractice critics warn high malpractice costs can affect patient care. For instance, some providers pass on complicated cases to avoid the risk of lawsuits, while others practice defensive medicine to avoid being sued, the article noted.

What's driving malpractice costs to multimillion-dollar levels? Some say lawyers representing victims "pad the bill" and play to the jury.

"If you ever get into one of these cases it's all about the economics. They overestimate what the expenses are," physician Mark Seigel, chairman of the Maryland section of the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology, told the Sun.

Yet malpractice attorneys maintain that juries aren't being too harsh with malpractice verdicts. They point out that large awards support costly healthcare services that children with disabilities will need during their entire lives, the article noted.

Providers can breathe a temporary sigh of relief, as the recent multimillion-dollar judgments in Baltimore may not reflect a nationwide trend. Malpractice payments on behalf of doctors hit a record low in 2011, according to a July report from consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. The number and inflation-adjusted value of such payments were the lowest since 1991, the earliest full year after the government started collecting data.

For more:
- read the Sun article
- here's the Public Citizen study (.pdf)