The words “medical malpractice” may conjure up nightmares of megabuck settlements, but most patients don’t get a dime, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.


An agency of the Justice Department, the bureau analyzed malpractice cases that were closed between 2000 and 2004 in Florida, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, and Texas. Those states maintain extensive databases on malpractice claims.

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In Illinois, 7 out of 8 cases (about 88%) closed without any payout at all, while payouts were made in only a third of the cases in Maine, Missouri and Nevada. Payouts of more than $1 million were rare, accounting for fewer than 10% of the claims in Florida, Maine, Missouri, and Nevada. In Florida, Maine, and Missouri, about two thirds of claims were closed with insurance payouts of less than $250,000.


Patients with grave and permanent injuries were awarded the most money. In Florida and Missouri, median payouts in these cases were between $278,000 and $350,000. Compensation was lowest for temporary or emotional injuries. Median awards to these plaintiffs in Florida and Missouri were between $5,000 and $79,000.


Payouts increased as cases moved through the legal system. Claims settled before a lawsuit was even filed tended to have the lowest awards; those settled after a trial tended to have the highest. The difference was often substantial. Median payouts after trials in Florida, Nevada, and Texas were at least 2.5 times larger than claims that were settled earlier. Fewer than 5% of malpractice cases went all the way to verdict in those states.


In general, patients did not file claims with insurance companies immediately after an injury. In Florida, Missouri, and Texas, the average lag was about 15 to 18 months. After the claim was received, it took an average of 26 to 29 additional months to close.


The report, Medical Malpractice Insurance Claims in Seven States, 2000-2004 (NCJ-216339), is available at (search for “medical malpractice”).