Ohio sees drop in medical liability claims

Doctors credit recent tort reforms, though insurance regulators point to other possible factors.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted Feb. 19, 2009

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Medical liability claims in Ohio fell for the second year in a row, according to the latest figures from the state Dept. of Insurance.

Physicians say the turnaround in the medical liability climate is proof that recent liability reforms are working.

The number of closed claims dropped 14% from 2006 to 2007, data from the third annual Ohio Medical Professional Liability Closed Claim Report showed. The recent decline followed a 21% decrease in lawsuit filings from 2005 to 2006, according to the January study, available online (link).

About 80% of the 3,451 closed claims analyzed in 2007 resulted in no payouts to plaintiffs -- stable compared with the previous year.

Of the claims that resulted in a judgment or settlement, however, average payment amounts rose for the second straight year by 10% to $315,635 in 2007. The average cost of defending and investigating medical liability cases jumped 39% from $25,672 per claim in 2006 to $35,603 in 2007.

Despite those increases, doctors say the report offers good news.

"All in all the market is a much better place for physicians than it was five years ago," said Tim Maglione, the Ohio State Medical Assn.'s senior director of government relations.

He attributed the improvements to a set of comprehensive tort reforms passed in 2003, including a $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages. A 2005 affidavit of merit rule also requires plaintiff lawyers to include expert testimony with the initial filing of a medical liability case.

Thanks to the changes, physicians also have seen an average 18% drop in medical liability insurance premiums since 2006, Maglione said. The increase in average claims payments and expenses closely tracked inflation rates, he added.

But insurance regulators were reluctant in their analysis to recognize tort reform as a driving force behind changes in the liability environment, citing "insufficient data."

For example, few claims have reached a trial or jury verdict, allowing little opportunity to track the potential effects of capping noneconomic damages. The insurance department also does not capture information related to risk-management efforts, such as patient safety measures, which could influence claims frequency and costs, report authors noted.

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