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The role of the autopsy in medical malpractice cases, I: a review of 99 appeals court decisions

Kevin E Bove, Clare Iery
Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine 2002, 126 (9): 1023-31

CONTEXT: Fear that damaging information from autopsy may be introduced as evidence in lawsuits alleging medical malpractice is often cited as one factor contributing to the decline in autopsy rates.

OBJECTIVE: To determine how autopsy information influences the outcome of medical malpractice litigation.

DESIGN: We studied state court records in 99 cases of medical malpractice adjudicated from 1970 to the present to assess the role of information from autopsies in the outcomes.

RESULTS: The 3 largest groups defined by cause of death at autopsy were acute pulmonary embolism, acute cardiovascular disease, and drug overdose/interaction. Findings for defendant physicians outnumbered medical negligence in the original trial proceedings by a 3:1 margin. The appellate courts affirmed 51 acquittals and 19 findings of negligence, and reversed the original trial court decision in 29 cases for technical reasons. We found no significant relationship between accuracy of clinical diagnosis (using the autopsy standard) and outcome of a suit charging medical negligence. Even when a major discrepancy existed between the autopsy diagnosis and the clinical diagnosis, and the unrecognized condition was deemed treatable, defendant physicians were usually exonerated. Moreover, major diagnostic discrepancies were relatively uncommon in suits in which a physician was found to be negligent. Conversely, in about 20% of cases, autopsy findings were helpful to defendant physicians.

CONCLUSIONS: Our study confirms that a finding of medical negligence is based on standard-of-care issues rather than accuracy of clinical diagnosis. Autopsy findings may appear to be neutral or favorable to either the plaintiff or the defendant, but are typically not the crux of a successful legal argument for either side in a malpractice action. We conclude that fear of autopsy findings has no rational basis and is an important obstacle to uninhibited outcomes analysis.

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