03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Too Many Lawsuits? My Foot

Republicans seek to limit medical malpractice lawsuits. The AMA claims that million-dollar jury awards increase the cost of health care. Actually, for every patient who sues, there are several who should but don't.

A Harvard study that examined the records of 30,000 patients in New York discovered that 280 contained "strong or certain evidence of negligence." Extrapolated statewide, this equaled 13,000 cases of negligence in a single year. The study also found that only one out of every eight patients who had a valid medical malpractice claim actually filed a suit. The negligence included the surgical removal of the wrong leg or kidney, brain damage to newborns, and improper matching of donor and recipient.

Many victims of malpractice don't know that negligence caused their problem. Others refuse to sue because they consider it human to err, are grateful to a physician of many years for care, or fear that they will be refused treatment if they sue.

Patients who do prevail in court rarely receive outlandish awards, which are said to drive up the costs of health care, entice trial lawyers to bring unwarranted lawsuits, and push physicians to order unneeded procedures to protect themselves. Actually, more than two-thirds of malpractice lawsuits are dismissed or dropped before they are settled or brought to trial, and those that do survive do not result in massive awards. Many of the rare large jury awards are scaled back on appeal.

Moreover, one can narrow the field without punishing those who deserve compensation. Several states have already introduced malpractice review panels. Patients who wish to file a suit must first submit their cases to these panels. If a panel rules against the case, a plaintiff may still sue, but the panel's report can be filed with the court. Such panels do effectively deter unwarranted suits.

If we are to avoid government regulation of medical decisions, we must let the private sector work. It works when patients who know that they have been wronged seek justice by vying directly with doctors and their lawyers. One would expect the champions of the private sector to welcome, rather than seek to curb, such justice.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University, and the author of The Moral Dimension: Toward a New Economics. He can be reached at