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How Many People Would Die Due to Medical Errors if there Were No Civil Justice System – Part 1

In a recent article, the American Association for Justice listed a wide variety of ways in which our country would be much worse off if there were no civil justice system. Because medical malpractice law is a part of the civil justice system, hospitals would be severely impacted if there were no civil justice. Without civil courts, patients and their families would have no recourse when doctors, nurses, or other medical professionals hurt them by committing medical errors.

Medical professionals are human beings, so like all human beings, they make mistakes. And there is nothing that can be done to eliminate all mistakes-some people will wind up suffering from personal injuries or even wrongful death no matter how strong a society’s civil justice system is. But there is evidence that when a strong medical malpractice system is in place, patients are less likely to be victims of medical error.
Some of that evidence comes in the form of a study by two experts from Northwestern University. Zenon Zabinski from Northwestern’s Department of Economics, and Bernard S. Black, from the university’s School of Law, published a study last month entitled “The Deterrent Effect of Tort Law: Evidence from Medical Malpractice Reform.” In their study the experts concluded that in states where the legislature’s weakened the civil justice system by instituting caps on non-economic damages, patient safety consistently decreased when compared to control states. In other words, when the legislature guts the civil justice system patient’s suffer. Without the threat of large medical malpractice verdicts, medical professionals in so-called “tort-reform” states had less incentive to be careful.

The Pursuit of Justice

These conclusions are far from novel. After all, the very essence of the tort system is two-fold. First, it provides a mechanism in which those who suffer injuries can be compensated by those who injure them. Second, it provides a mechanism for deterring bad or risky behavior on the part of those consumers have to trust-whether its medical professionals, product manufacturers, or service providers. The Northwestern study is not the first to show that the civil justice system serves this second purpose. A 1978 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine called “Doctors, Damages and Deterrence. An Economic View of Medical Malpractice” also supported these conclusions. In that study, experts found that jury “awards can send a signal to providers that informs them how much to invest in avoiding mishaps.”

Sure, individual doctors or nurses can be altruistic-some level of compassion and care for your fellow person may even be common or necessary amongst people who go in to the medical profession. But those doctors and nurses work in hospitals that have bottom lines. Whether its a budget to stay within at a public institution, or a profit to be made at a private one, ultimately economic decisions will be made. And if skimping on patient care is not costly, corners will be cut and patients will suffer. How many? There is no way of knowing an exact number shy of eliminating the civil justice system. But we do know that the number will be substantially higher than the number of people who are hurt now. And that would be unacceptable.

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