Medical Errors Are Third Leading Cause of Death But Lack of Malpractice Suits Jeopardize Patient Safety

Medical errors now make up the third leading cause of death in the United States after cancer and heart disease according to a recent study. John Hopkins patient safety experts’ analyzed data over an eight-year period and concluded that 250,000 deaths per year are due to medical errors.[i] Today, researchers consider those numbers significantly underestimate the problem, with preventable errors causing as many as 440,000 patient deaths each year.[ii] Despite the hundreds of thousands of Americans killed or injured by avoidable medical errors, very few injured patients file claims or lawsuits.

Researchers found that lawsuits are filed on behalf of the patient in 19.9 percent of harms. In other words, only 1 in 5 patient harms resulted in a lawsuit. Analysis of over 10,500 closed medical malpractice liability claims from 2013-2017 revealed the following:

  • Misdiagnoses are the largest root cause of all medical liability claims, accounting for one-third of all claims and 47 percent of indemnity payments.
  • Surgical/procedural failures are the second largest root cause of claims, accounting for nearly a quarter of all claims and 18 percent of indemnity payments.
  • 53% of misdiagnosis claims include risk management issues involving poor clinical decisional-making.
  • 54% of misdiagnosis claims are high severity cases, and 36% result in death.
  • 36% of misdiagnosis claims stem from outpatient (office setting) locations. [iii]

The unfortunate consequence of few injured patients filing suit is that overall patient safety suffers. Doctors and hospitals do not expect to bear the full cost of harms caused by negligence and have little incentive to address the root cause of why the medical errors occur. When patients file claims, the malpractice insurers and medical specialty groups mine thousands of closed claims from suits that have been tried, dismissed or settled over the year. Their goal is to identify common reasons that doctors are sued and the underlying issues that threaten public safety. They are sharing those insights with doctors and hospitals, which in turn are using them to develop new safety protocols and prevention strategies.

If you or loved one have concerns about the medical care and treatment provided, contact the attorneys at Grewal Law, PLLC for a free consultation.


[ii] 1 John T. James, “A New, Evidence-based Estimate of Patient Harms Associated with Hospital Care,” Patient of Journal Safety (September 2013),

[iii] Coverys, Diagnostic Accuracy: room for Improvement (2018),

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