Utah Decision Threatens to Raise Medical Malpractice Insurance Rates

The Supreme Court of Utah just opened a giant can of worms in regard to medical professional liability. And those worms could be a harbinger of rising medical malpractice insurance rates for the state’s physician and surgeon communities.

On Feb. 28, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that healthcare providers have a duty to consider how a patient’s course of treatment could affect that patient’s family. This opens the door for family members to sue their relative’s physician if they are adversely affected by the patient’s course of treatment.

The case that the Utah high court was considering was filed by the children of a woman who was murdered by her heavily medicated husband in a church parking lot. Following the woman’s death and the subsequent murder conviction of her husband, the woman’s children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the husband’s healthcare providers, alleging that they were negligent because his medications contributed to his murderous actions. The children sued the doctor Hugo and his nurse practitioner for prescribing antidepressants and other medications that can carry risks of psychiatric complications.

A Third District Court Judge originally dismissed the case in February 2011, writing that the children could not pursue a medical malpractice lawsuit because they were not the patients. The Utah Supreme Court reversed that decision.

This is a big deal because medical malpractice insurance rates are determined by a few, very important factors: the state’s existing tort reform legislation, historic jury verdicts and claims frequency.

Traditionally, medical malpractice has been defined as an act of medical negligence that results in undue injury to a patient. Now, the Utah Supreme Court has widened that definition to include an act of medical negligence that results in undue injury to a patient OR his or her family members.

Plaintiff attorneys are not dumb. They are always looking for ways to increase the dollar amount of jury verdicts and settlements. If they can attach the injured patient’s family members to a medical malpractice lawsuit, they will. The plaintiff attorneys will do this with varied, creative arguments showing how the medical negligence caused undue injury to not just the patient but also his or her family members.

By widening the number of potential victims of an act of medical negligence, the Utah high court’s decision will undoubtedly increase the state’s claims frequency. And that claims frequency will ultimately necessitate that medical malpractice insurance companies increase the cost of medical malpractice insurance rates.

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