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Malpractice suits often groundless, study says

Harvard analysis finds that many dubious claims are weeded out

About 40 percent of the medical malpractice cases filed in the United States are groundless, according to a Harvard analysis of the hotly debated issue that pits trial lawyers against doctors, with lawmakers in the middle.

Many of the lawsuits analyzed contained no evidence that a medical error was committed or that the patient suffered any injury, the researchers reported.

The vast majority of those dubious cases were dismissed with no payout to the patient. However, groundless lawsuits still accounted for 15 percent of the money paid out in settlements or verdicts.

The study's lead researcher, David Studdert of the Harvard School of Public Health, said the findings challenge the view among tort reform supporters that the system is riddled with frivolous claims that lead to huge payouts.

''We found the system did reasonably well in sorting the good claims from the bad ones, but there were problems," he said.

However, the American Medical Association, which favors caps on malpractice awards, called the study proof that a substantial number of meritless claims slip through the cracks, ''clogging the courts" and forcing doctors to waste time defending them, association board member Dr. Cecil Wilson said in a statement.

The findings were published in today's New England Journal of Medicine.

The study found 3 percent of claims analyzed were filed by patients who had no injury. Of the claims that involved injuries, two-thirds were caused by medical error. But the remaining injury claims, or 37 percent, lacked evidence of a medical mistake, and 72 percent of those were thrown out or otherwise resolved without a payout to the patient.

Altogether, the Harvard researchers reviewed 1,452 malpractice claims randomly selected from five insurance companies. The cases were resolved -- meaning they ended in a verdict, a settlement or a dismissal -- between 1984 and 2004.

In one instance, a young woman with no family history of breast cancer underwent routine breast exams for four years and came back with a clean bill of health. But doctors later found she had breast cancer that had spread to other parts of the body.

The researchers determined the case did not involve medical error because proper procedures were followed. The woman filed a malpractice claim and received an undisclosed settlement.

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