Texas Medical Malpractice Basics

Texas-Medical-Malpractice-BasicsTexas, like most states, has laws regarding medical malpractice. These laws exist to define and limit the scope of medical malpractice legal claims. These types of laws can limit damages that plaintiffs can seek, establish limits on the time that one has to file a malpractice claim, as well as other requirements.

The purpose of medical malpractice liability laws that limit potential medical malpractice risk to doctors and other healthcare providers is to lower the cost of medical malpractice insurance which may indirectly increase access to healthcare for state residents by encouraging healthcare professionals to practice, or expand their practice.

The medical community expressed concerns over the years about the high cost of malpractice insurance and the negative incentive it created to serve the public at large. Many jurisdictions have responded by creating malpractice liability laws to limit liability to healthcare providers.

Texas Medical Malpractice Law

In Texas, the Medical Liability and Insurance Improvement Act (MLIIA), which was originally passed into law in 1977, established several requirements for plaintiffs:

  1. a two-year statute of limitations, meaning that the plaintiff must file a suit within 2 years of being injured by a physician or 2 years after the medical care at issue concluded;
  2. a plaintiff must be evaluated by an expert and file the findings of that expert on the defendant within 120 days of filing a claim against a doctor or discovery (the collection of evidence for a trial) may not proceed;
  3. pre-filing notice: prospective plaintiffs must provide written notice to each healthcare provider named as a defendant at least 60 days before filing a claim

Additionally, if the plaintiff alleging medical malpractice is a minor (under 18 years of age), then he or she will have two years from the date of his 18th birthday, regardless of what age the injury occurred, to file a claim against a medical provider. However, the maximum time period to file a suit from the time of the alleged malpractice injury (called the statute of repose) is ten years.

Damage Liability Caps

The law further has caps on liability for noneconomic damages at $250,000 for a single physician or healthcare facility (with a total cap of $500,000 where multiple providers are implicated). Noneconomic damages include “pain and suffering” as well as mental anguish, disfigurement, as well as other harm to one’s quality of life.

There are other types of damages that are discussed in the Texas medical malpractice law. The law calculates the appropriate amount of economic damages (damages that compensate the plaintiff for measurable economic losses such as loss of work or the cost of medical care borne by the plaintiff).

Based off of economic damages, there are “exemplary damages” which are punitive or punishment against the healthcare provider who harmed the patient/plaintiff. Exemplary damages may only be recovered if the plaintiff can show at least one of these three occurred:

  1. fraud (essentially lying to the plaintiff to trick him or her into taking some sort of action),
  2. malice (specific intent to actually harm the plaintiff), or
  3. gross negligence (the defendant engages in extremely risky behavior without considering the risk appropriately to the detriment of the plaintiff).

Furthermore, the Texas legislature has created factors under which the amount of exemplary damages are weighed and determined the statute:

  1. The nature of the wrong;
  2. The character of the conduct in question;
  3. The culpability of the defendant(s);
  4. The situation of each of the parties (how sophisticated was each party regarding the medical issue and related treatment);
  5. The level to which the actions of the defendant were socially unacceptable in the community; and
  6. The net monetary worth of the defendant.

The purpose of this six factor weighing test is to force juries (the “fact-finders”) to apply set objective criteria in determining damages. The law does not want jurors to simply find that the defendant’s behavior was less than ideal or that the plaintiff was injured so the healthcare provider should therefore make the plaintiff whole. Instead, the law narrows the scope of the exemplary damages inquiry by creating a six-factor test that encourages jurors to think through the events of the case at hand in detail and carefully evaluate all aspects of the wrong.

Are Juries Too Sympathetic to Plaintiffs in Medical Malpractice?

One common myth among the public is that juries are often too sympathetic to injured plaintiffs regardless of the facts of a case and come down hard on doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers. However, this is not necessarily true. Medical studies have found that doctors win about 75% of cases that go to trial. Also, juries are generally consistent with their damages awards with medical experts and judges. Where evidence is weak, physicians generally win at trial. Even in trials where there is strong evidence of medical malpractice, doctors and other healthcare providers win half the time. Indeed, the quality of care that is provided to a patient seems to correlate with the outcomes at malpractice trials.

However, studies also show that cases that may have “bad” medical care that may count as malpractice at trial quite often settle. The settlement amounts that researchers have found for various malpractice claims fall into three buckets. For claims in which there was ostensibly good care, there is a lower chance of settlement, but in cases that do settle, the dollar amount is only about $14,000. For middling cases, where the care was not good, but not truly bad either, there is a higher likelihood of settlement and the average settlement figure is close to $145,000. And, for cases where there was objectively “bad” care, settlement was very common and the settlement award was close to $200,000.

So, medical malpractice claims will often fall into strong, ambiguous/middling, or weak cases depending on the actual quality of care provided to the patient. These buckets often have a direct correlation to the success of the plaintiff at persuading the doctor/defendant to settle on favorable terms or to obtain a favorable verdict at trial. The idea that juries are overly sympathetic to injured plaintiffs appears to truly be a myth.