Hospital malpractice defense tactic unfair, critics say

The recent malpractice case at UPMC Presbyterian highlights a common legal tactic that protects physicians under the corporate shield of the health organization--remove the physicians' names from the case, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

The family of Samuel Sweet, a patient who died in 2009 while being treated at UPMC, was awarded a $1.37 million settlement. Although the family originally named four doctors as defendants in the case (Amit Kaura, Penny Sappington, Raghavan Murugan and Matthew Rosengart) for allegedly failing to treat his brain hemorrhage, the settlement only included UPMC Presbyterian hospital as the sole defendant.

Although it's difficult to determine how many cases remove physicians from settlement cases, the practice could be a nationwide problem, according to Sydney Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group, a policy group within the Public Citizen advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

"[I]t happens quite a bit," Wolfe told the Post-Gazette. "And we suspect that frequently [dismissing the doctors as defendants] is not on the merits."

Critics view the legal maneuver by hospitals as unfair protection. Removing doctors as defendants in malpractice cases thereby allows them to evade the National Practitioner Data Bank reporting.

The Data Bank guidelines, however, states "if the practitioner is dismissed from the lawsuit in consideration of the payment being made in settlement of the lawsuit, the payment can only be construed as a payment for the benefit of the health care practitioner and must be reported to the NPDB."

Director of the Data Bank Cindy Grubbs said it is aware that dismissing doctors before a settlement is a way to avoid reporting the payment on their record, "but we have no way of knowing how often it occurs."

For more information:
- see the Post-Gazette article on the settlement and the article on the case