Epidemiology and etiology of malpractice lawsuits involving children in US emergency departments and urgent care centers

Steven M Selbst, Marla J Friedman, Sabina B Singh
Pediatric Emergency Care 2005, 21 (3): 165-9

OBJECTIVE: To obtain epidemiologic outcome information about pediatric lawsuits that originate in the emergency department and urgent care center.

METHODS: This was an anonymous retrospective review of all closed pediatric claims in the Physician Insurers Association of America database during a 16-year period (1985-2000). This database, containing data from 20 major malpractice insurance firms, insuring 25% US physicians, was queried for epidemiologic outcome information about pediatric lawsuits originating in US emergency departments and urgent care centers.

RESULTS: There were 2283 closed claims reviewed. Of these, 96% originated in the emergency department, and 4% originated in an urgent care center. Nonteaching hospitals were the sites for 79% of claims. Suits involved emergency department physicians in 29%, pediatricians in 19%, board-certified physicians in 46%, US graduates in 70%, and full-time physicians in 96% of cases. In 66% of cases, doctors had a previous claim. In 65% of cases, more than 1 defendant was involved. Patients were boys in 59% and were younger than 2 years in 47%. The most common diagnoses involved in the lawsuits were meningitis, appendicitis, arm fracture, and testicular torsion. Cases in which the child died were most often from meningitis or pneumonia. The most common misadventures were diagnostic error (39%), and no medical error identified in 18%.

OUTCOME: Cases were settled in 93% (indemnity paid in 30%). There was a judgment for the doctor in 5.5% and for the patient in 1.4%. The average indemnity/claim was US66,000 dollars in 1985 versus US218,000 dollars (+330%) in 1997. The average indemnity ranged from US7000 dollars for emotional injury, US149,000 dollars for death of the patient, US300,000 dollars for major permanent injury, and US540,000 dollars for quadriplegic from injury. There was no significant difference between teaching versus nonteaching hospitals, between urgent care center versus emergency department, US graduate physician versus non-US graduate, or physician age. Indemnity paid/claim for full-time physicians was US161,000 dollars versus US91,000 dollars for part-time physicians. Total paid to plaintiffs was US116 million dollars. Legal cost of defending the cases was US36 million dollars (including defense attorney fees, US24 million dollars, and expert witness fees, US3.4 million dollars).

CONCLUSIONS: Malpractice suits most often involved fractures, meningitis, and appendicitis. Most suits are settled; many are apparently frivolous. Paid indemnities have dramatically increased in recent years. Verdicts decided by juries favored the doctor in 80% of suits.

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