Study: Tort reform reduces malpractice lawsuit risk

June 2, 2011

Implementation of comprehensive tort reform has been associated with a nearly 80% decrease in the prevalence of surgical malpractice lawsuits at one academic medical center, say researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

Implementation of comprehensive tort reform has been associated with a nearly 80% decrease in the prevalence of surgical malpractice lawsuits at one academic medical center, say researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

This decrease in lawsuits also resulted in a significant decrease in malpractice-associated costs, according to the authors, who published their findings in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons (2011; 212:463-7).

As part of comprehensive tort reform in 2003, Texas Proposition 12 placed a $750,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits and limited an individual physician’s liability to $250,000. The authors, using data extracted from two hospital databases, reviewed malpractice suit prevalence and associated costs, spanning an 18-year period from 1992-2010.

During this period, surgeons performed 98,513 surgical procedures. Out of this cohort, surgical patients filed 28 lawsuits. The majority of the suits were filed between 1992 and 2003 (the pre-reform period). The liability cost of the lawsuits was $5.56 million, and the legal fees were $1.6 million for a total litigation cost of $7.16 million. The annualized cost was almost $600,000 per year.

Since 2004, three surgical-related lawsuits have been filed. The total legal cost for these cases was $3,345, or an annualized cost of about $500 per year.

The prevalence of surgical malpractice lawsuits significantly decreased following tort reform. During the pre-reform period, malpractice suit prevalence was 40/100,000 operations. After tort reform, it dropped to 8/100,000 for a relative reduction of almost 80%.

"Implementation of comprehensive tort reform in Texas was associated with almost a five-fold decrease in the risk of a malpractice lawsuit being filed," said lead author Ronald M. Stewart, MD. "Medical malpractice tort reform is beneficial for the surgeon and other health care practitioners because of the significant decrease in lawsuits; however, I believe it is also beneficial to patients because of its influence on improved access and quality of care, and decreased costs leading to overall reduced health care costs."