Doctors get a fair shake from malpractice juries, a Missouri law professor has found. In fact, physicians often win cases experts expected they’d lose.


“The data show that defendants and their hired experts are more successful than plaintiffs and their hired experts at persuading juries to reach verdicts that are contrary to the evidence,” said Philip G. Peters Jr., a professor of health law at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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Peters reviewed previous studies of medical negligence cases from 1989 to 2006 in New Jersey, Michigan, and North Carolina. The studies, which included all medical specialties, evaluated expert medical opinions and the merits of malpractice claims. His data, published in the Michigan Law Review (May 2007;106:1-42), showed that juries understand the concept of negligence and that a bad outcome does not necessarily indicate malpractice.


“Plaintiffs rarely win weak cases,” Peters wrote. “They have more success in toss-up cases, and fare best in cases with strong evidence of medical negligence.”


Juries recognize weak cases and side with independent legal experts 80 to 90% of the time, he wrote. However, if there is strong evidence of negligence, juries “are much more likely to deviate from the opinion of an expert [defense] reviewer.” Doctors successfully avoided negative verdicts in 50% of cases that independent experts expected them to lose, Peters wrote.


He cited several social factors that “systematically favor defendants in the courtroom.” These include the high social standing physicians enjoy, “social norms against profiting from an injury, and the jury’s willingness to give physicians the benefit of the doubt when the evidence of negligence is conflicting.”


Peters undertook his review because of proposals to remove malpractice cases from lay juries in civil courts and submit them instead to administrative courts or other venues. This change assumes that “juries lack the capacity to resolve medical malpractice suits fairly,” he wrote, and he designed his research to test that assumption. “From the perspective of malpractice defendants at least,” he concluded, “jury performance is remarkably good.”