Malpractice suits can involve hidden high attorneys' fees and other financial burdens

By Stephanie Srakocic | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published May 22, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Even malpractice suits that are dismissed or withdrawn can cost physicians legal defense fees and heightened malpractice premiums.

  • Unexpected costs, such as plaintiff attorney fees, can add to the financial burden of malpractice suits.

Recently, a Detroit, Michigan judge ruled against Greg Naman, MD, the owner of Epic Primary Care, and awarded $3.1 million to the plaintiff.

Naman was also charged a hefty $810,000 in attorneys’ fees. The judge arrived at this amount using the salaries of insurance company executives and a former NFL quarterback. Naman and his lawyer contested these fees, calling them “outrageous” and “clearly inflated,” but the plaintiff’s legal team, including Attorneys Jonathan Marko and Geoffrey Fieger, believe the charges are appropriate for a trial this complex and high-stakes. The hourly attorneys’ fees work out to $1,500 and $1,600, respectively, for Marko and Fieger.[] 

These fees are not only well above the fees charged by the defense team, but they’re also more than double those charged by the 95th percentile of lawyers in Michigan.

However, medical malpractice representation routinely costs far more than other legal specialties. The average hourly rate for plaintiff malpractice attorneys in Michigan is $621, and the 95th percentile is charged an hourly rate of $1,500. By comparison, medical malpractice defense attorneys charged an average hourly rate of $275.  

Physicians like Naman say that these fees are unconscionable. Although he was subsequently able to settle for a lesser, undisclosed amount, Naman argued that if he’d had to pay the initial $810,000, it would have forced him to close some locations of Epic Primary Care. This, he said, would not be justice for the harm done to one patient. Instead, he claimed, it would harm the many patients served by his offices.

Malpractice and underserved communities

High-profile malpractice suits have presented evidence that patient mistreatment and harm were caused by discriminatory factors such as racism. Often, these cases have occurred in hospitals, medical centers, and clinics that serve urban areas and receive patients from underserved communities without access to quality health services. These cases frequently highlight inequalities already experienced by such communities: when, for example, patients have to travel long distances for care and are treated differently by medical professionals.

The case against Naman alleged that he and other physicians at Epic Primary Care held racial motivations for their neglectful medical care of the plaintiff. However, Naman has stated that the majority of Epic Primary Care’s patients are non-white. Additionally, he claims that by asking for exorbitant attorneys’ fees, the plaintiff’s legal team is taking funding away from medical care for the community, forcing him to possibly close locations that serve this population and discouraging other physicians from wanting to practice within the city. 

The cost of malpractice suits

Naman was responsible for the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees due to Michigan's trial laws. Under these laws, when a party does not agree to a mediator-proposed settlement and does not receive a 10% or more favorable verdict in the trial, they are responsible for the other party’s attorneys’ fees. Laws such as this can add to the already steep cost of medical malpractice suits. 

For instance, while the vast majority of medical malpractice cases are withdrawn, dropped, or dismissed, withdrawn cases still cost an average of  $30,475 to defend in 2015. A large percentage of malpractice cases are also settled before they reach trial. Settlement amounts can vary, but in 2013, the average settlement amount was $450,000.[] 

That’s not a small number; many physicians are wary of settlements. O. William Brown, MD, JD, Program Director and Chief of the Section of Vascular Surgery at William Beaumont Hospital and Adjunct Professor of Law at Michigan State University, says they shouldn’t be.

“A question I always get is, ‘If I accept a settlement, am I admitting that I committed malpractice?’ and the answer to that is a definitive ‘no,’” says Brown. “You’re not admitting malpractice. Basically, what you’re saying is, ‘I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I paid this money, and it’s over. I didn’t commit malpractice, but I don’t want to go through this [trial process].”

Around 7% of malpractice cases are heard and decided in a trial, but defendants win in over 87%of cases. When plaintiffs win, awards can again vary, but average amounts are typically mid-$300,000s. However, between 2009 and 2014,  8% of all claims awarded were over $1 million. Even when the court rules in favor of the defendant, going to court can cost you—and not just in legal fees. The time spent in court is time you cannot spend in the office, and those lost hours can add up fast.[][] 

Another cost? A claim against your malpractice insurance will typically raise your premiums. While the amount it raises your premiums will depend on factors such as your specialty, state, insurance company, type of claim, and how the claim progresses, you can expect to see your future costs increase.

Preventing malpractice

Unfortunately, you can’t predict the future to perfectly prevent any possibility of a malpractice suit. In fact, within some specialties, such as obstetrics and gynecology, the probability can be higher. This doesn’t mean that you can’t take steps to reduce your risk. You can protect yourself and your patients with best practice methods, such as focusing on patient safety, great communication, and detailed documentation. For more advice, check out these seven tips.

Read Next: 7 tips to avoid a malpractice suit, according to experts
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