It is a not-so-uncommon belief among doctors and other medical providers that the risk of being sued for medical malpractice by a poor patient is much greater than the risk of being sued for medical malpractice by other patients. This perception may help explain why, at least in part, some doctors may choose not to treat patients on Medicaid or to treat the poor differently than others. This perception that the poor sue for medical malpractice more often may also be behind efforts in some states to provide doctors who treat the poor with either partial or total immunity from medical malpractice claims.
A recent review of prior studies and other sources of information found that poor people were not more likely to file medical malpractice claims than other patients. For example, although Medicaid patients represented 10% of the population in 1992, they filed less than 5% of the medical malpractice lawsuits in 1992. Another study found that medical malpractice settlement payments made to people who were not on Medicaid were 5 to 10 times greater than the amounts paid to Medicaid patients.
Although very few non-meritorious medical malpractice lawsuits are filed and even fewer go to trial, a study found that Medicaid patients were less likely to file non-meritorious medical malpractice claims than their wealthier brethren.
One reason why poor patients file less medical malpractice claims may be the nature of the litigation system itself. Studies have shown that medical malpractice juries award damages based on what they perceive as the extent to which the medical malpractice victims were deserving of compensation. Juries may take into consideration the socio-economic status of the claimants, their employment status, their educational level, their ability to express themselves, their “likability,” and other attributes that may penalize claimants for being poor.
Since medical malpractice lawyers are usually paid for their legal services based on a fixed percentage of the amount awarded by juries or obtained in settlement, any variable that may reduce the amount of the potential recovery has to be taken into consideration by medical malpractice lawyers when deciding whether to accept a poor claimant’s medical malpractice case.
Medical malpractice attorneys must consider the likelihood of obtaining a substantial medical malpractice recovery before agreeing to accept a medical malpractice case in order to justify the costs of litigation (which can exceed $100,000) that they pay out of their own pockets and which are typically unreimbursed if the medical malpractice case is lost, and the substantial investment of the attorneys’ time that once spent cannot be recovered. Medical malpractice lawyers will not be in business very long if they accept medical malpractice cases that do not result in substantial monetary recoveries.
Another consideration for medical malpractice attorneys is the amount of the economic losses suffered by their medical malpractice clients. Since poor medical malpractice claimants have little, if any, loss of income or earning capacity as a result of medical mistakes, their medical malpractice cases are “worth less” than the medical malpractice claims of employed or business-owner claimants whose lost wages or profits in the past and into the future can dramatically increase the economic recovery in their medical malpractice cases (everything else being equal).
Whether you are poor or wealthy, male or female, young or old, short or tall — whomever you are — if you are the victim of medical malpractice in the United States, you may be entitled to compensation for your losses.
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