stethoscope and gavel

History of Medical Malpractice in the US

The concept of medical malpractice has been around for thousands of years. In fact, one of the oldest, longest legal writings in the world, Hammurabi’s Code, was on medical malpractice. This Babylonian legal code dates back to 1792 BC and has more than 280 laws.  Hammurabi’s Code stated the responsibility of the doctor to care for his patients and that the doctor will face harsh punishment should any additional harm be done to the patient.

Centuries later, Hippocrates, a doctor in Ancient Greece coined the promise of ‘do no harm.’ This Hippocratic oath is still used by doctors today, though it has been revised many times.

Some of the earliest, recorded medical malpractice cases in Europe occurred in the Middle Ages and in the 1700s,  Great Britain saw a dramatic uptick in malpractice suits.

The first documented medical malpractice cases in the United States centered on the breach of contract rather than the doctor’s failure to adhere to the adequate standard of care. The first U.S. malpractice case occurred in 1794 when a man sued the doctor after his wife died from an operation the doctor performed. Prior to the surgery, the doctor promised the husband and wife that he would conduct the operation with skill and safety. The plaintiff was awarded 40 pounds.

The 1800s saw an increase of medical malpractice cases due to many doctors preferring amputation rather than attempting to fix injured or deformed limbs. In 1847, the American Medical Association (AMA) was founded with the mission to standardize the level of care as well as elevate physicians’ standing in society.

Massachusetts Medical Insurance Society was founded in 1908 and in 1919 began to offer doctors liability insurance to protect them from “unjust” malpractice suits.

The number of medical malpractice cases continued to increase and came to a head in the 1960s. During this decade, new and more sophisticated treatments resulted in more medical errors and patient injuries. Medical professionals began to lobby for federal intervention and protection.

The 1960s saw some of the highest medical malpractice reward payouts, five of which surpassed $2 million. Of the top 10 highest claim cases during this time, five were suits involving children who got cerebral palsy due to medical error.

In the U.S., there is no federal standards of care doctors are required to follow. Instead, each state has its own malpractice statutes, limitations and regulations. Each state also has different requirements for what constitutes the grounds for a malpractice case.

The high damage payouts awarded in the 1960s led many states to develop medical malpractice reform acts. One of the most notable of these reforms was each states determination to cap damage award amounts. Some states limited the amount awarded to as little as $250,000, while others, like New York, decided to not have a cap on how much plaintiffs receive.

Medical malpractice payouts became so lucrative the fear of “spurious claims” led to legislation the introduced the idea of shared fault in medical malpractice claims. States recognized that the doctor or medical professional was not always the only one at fault. Contributory and comparative fault was assessed by a jury to assign the amount of blame on both the defendant and the plaintiff.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the doctrine of informed consent came about. The doctrine of informed consent is still required of medical professionals today. Informed consent requires doctors to disclose all the accompanying risk of a medical procedure, medication or treatment to the patient. Upon hearing and being informed of the possible risks, the patient can then make the decision to refuse or go ahead with the procedure, treatment or medication.

During this same time, the state courts did away with the doctrine of charitable immunity which had previously protected nonprofit institutions from being sued for malpractice.

Over the years, states have continued to add, alter and discard medical malpractice laws. As each state is different, it is important that you know the statutes, qualifications, limitations and requirements of a successful malpractice case in your state.

For those residing or who have gotten medical treatment in New York, the lawyers and attorneys at Chianese & Reilly Law would be happy to assist you in determining whether you have a viable malpractice case. If you do have a valid medical malpractice case, contact us today to set up a consultation.