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What Is Medical Malpractice Tort Reform?

Proponents of medical malpractice tort reform argue that malpractice suits have a chilling effect on the medical profession and drives up healthcare costs.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 12 August 2014
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Medical malpractice tort reform is the process of enacting changes to civil law that alter the way medical malpractice suits can be pursued. In the United States, a number of advocates clamored for medical practice tort reform in the late 1990s and early 2000s, arguing that malpractice suits were having a chilling effect on the practice of medicine in addition to driving up healthcare costs. People opposed to tort reform argued that many of the claims made by supporters were spurious.

In medical malpractice, a doctor behaves negligently and a patient suffers as a result. Under the law, this is considered a "tort" or "wrong," and the patient is entitled to sue for damages. If a patient can demonstrate in a suit that the doctor's negligence led to expenses as well as pain and suffering for the patient, a jury can award damages that the doctor must pay. This mechanism is designed to hold people accountable for mistakes they make while practicing medicine.

The thrust of medical malpractice tort reform is that damages should be limited to prevent situations where people get unreasonably large payouts. In addition, it is argued that restrictions should be placed on when and how medical malpractice lawsuits can be filed to eliminate suits with no legal merit. The goal is to reduce both litigation and damages related to cases of suspected medical malpractice.

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Proponents of medical malpractice tort reform argue that the damages awarded in such cases are often unreasonably high. They also claim that patients file frivolous suits, goaded on by unscrupulous lawyers angling for a commission on a big payout. In addition to being expensive, these advocates believe that medical malpractice suits also lead doctors to practice "defensive medicine," focusing more on avoiding suits than on patient care. Furthermore, it is claimed that insurance companies providing malpractice insurance charge high premiums and often leave their clients out to dry when malpractice suits are filed.

People opposed to medical malpractice tort reform believe that many of these claims are misleading. Numerous states already have caps on damages, many of which are quite reasonable, and the bulk of damage awards in malpractice suits never even approaches these caps. Statistics on malpractice suits do not suggest that there has been a significant increase in frivolous suits. Opponents are also concerned that limiting opportunities to file suits with medical malpractice tort reform may result in cases where people have a genuine grievance but cannot receive compensation.

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