Ever since the COVID-19 virus arrived in the United States in early 2020, the fear of increasing medical lawsuits is something that has overshadowed hospitals across the country. The subject has been a frequent topic of discussion and debate in legal and political circles.
Now, a study by the law firm JustPoint seems to indicate that the pandemic did indeed create an increase in malpractice suits.
The study goes beyond simply looking at the number of lawsuits filed and goes deeper into the specifics of who is bringing the cases. The results show that people over the age of 70 are more likely to be bringing malpractice cases. The study further demonstrates that the incidences referenced in these lawsuits saw their sharpest increase in April 2020—right as public awareness of the pandemic was coming into full force.
One of the most common reasons for malpractice lawsuits is misdiagnosis. The April 2020 time period was 1 when medical facilities, trying to get a grasp on what was happening, would have been more vulnerable to making erroneous assessments of a patient’s condition.
Victor Bornstein, the CEO of JustPoint, also pointed out that hospitals have struggled with understaffing. The combination of insufficient staff and a drastically increased patient load results in mistakes.
Bornstein said some of the cases in his firm’s study showed patients being given wrong medications. “That happens most often in the ER,” Bornstein said. “You have a lot of people coming in. A lot of medical records open, sometimes you give the wrong medication to the wrong patient.”
The inherent problems in the system aren’t necessarily the hospital’s fault—indeed, Bornstein points out that medical facilities can just as easily get in trouble for hiring unqualified personnel as they can for hiring not enough people.
These reasons, while perhaps understandable, are not enough to protect a hospital in court. It’s not necessary for the plaintiff in a medical malpractice case to prove the hospital deliberately did anything wrong.
The core elements of a medical malpractice lawsuit simply require the plaintiff to establish that a duty of care existed, that it was breached, that the breach directly caused the subsequent medical problems and then to establish damages.
Proving all this is by no means easy. Making the direct connection between a misdiagnosis and subsequent medical problems is not always as straightforward as it might seem—particularly in COVID-19 cases that often involve co-morbidities.
Medical malpractice issues related to COVID-19 are not going to disappear, even when the coronavirus is considered to be under control. Time will tell if there will be long-term effects that might come to light years down the road. Whether there are any ill effects from the vaccine is also something that will only be understood further down the line.
In the meantime, it’s important that patients know their rights under medical malpractice law.