Medical Malpractice in Canada

The chances of a patient winning a medical malpractice lawsuit against a doctor in Canada are no better than they are in the USA. The numbers are run down in a book entitled After the Error: Speaking Out About Patient Safety to Save Lives.

Yet again a title excluding all the problems that are not errors: After the Error. But what else could they do? Stories about anything other than innocent errors too often result in lawsuits, or the threat of lawsuits, being brought against the victims. It leaves us able to talk only about cases that are not representative of the problems had by 98% of injured patients. Still, it is important to record every story we can.

The book also runs down some useful numbers.

Links to

Citing various studies, the authors say that adverse events contribute to between 38,000 and 43,000 deaths in Canada each year in addition to many times that number who didn't quite die but never will be the same.

A chapter by a lawyer in Halifax, John McKiggan, says that there are enough adverse events in medicine to generate over 100,000 lawsuits every year, but few do. From 2005 to 2010, only 4,524 lawsuits were filed against Canadian doctors. That's about 1% of the patients with legitimate grievances.

Of the 4,514 suits filed 3,089 were dismissed or abandoned “because the court dismissed the claim or the victim or the victim’s family quit, ran out of money or died before trial,” according to McKiggan.

Out of the 521 cases that went to trial, only 116 ended in a judgment that favoured the patient. And the median award was only $117,000.

“Of more than 4,000 lawsuits filed against doctors from 2005 to 2010, only 2 per cent resulted in trial verdicts for the victim.”

So only 1% of legitimate grievances become lawsuits and only 2% of those reward the victims. When only 2 victims in 1,000 win a lawsuit that cannot be regarded as a means of redress for the patient community in general, can it?. It's the only place patients can turn and it is nowhere to turn. And the medical community is fine with that.

McKiggan points out that most doctors are defended by the Canadian Medical Protection Association which has about $2.7-billion in assets according to its 2010 annual statement. That gives them deep pockets for waging protracted legal battles against patients.

In addition, McKiggan writes, “In most of the reported medical malpractice decisions across Canada, judges and juries tend to favour the doctor’s word, unless there is clear evidence to support the patient’s version of events.” 

If Canada is anything like the United States, only about 2% of adverse events are reported accurately (see medical reporting). In these court cases there is nothing to go on but the word of the people who didn't report honestly (one of the many things that isn't an error, and that isn't innocent, but that rarely is given credit for the harm it causes - for instance, did you ever try to get an iatrogenic injury treated when there is nothing in the record about it and no one will acknowledge it? Good luck. See: Silence).

But at least 2 in a thousand got to court. In the USA doctors imagined themselves to be so besieged by lawsuits that were frivolous that they persuaded state legislatures to pass liability limitations in order to keep even the few injured patients who did get lawyers from getting redress in court. That's more than just being fine with it.

Sleep tight, North America. You caregivers have only your best interests at heart.

From articles in The Globe and Mail and
in Canada

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