Insurance company settlements in medical malpractice cases in South Dakota sunk to below $2 million in 2016, less than half what they were a year ago.
Companies that insure health providers for medical liability reported paying $1.8 million in settlements. There were a dozen settlements that resulted in cash payments. The numbers were reported to the South Dakota Division of Insurance and analyzed by Argus Leader Media.
In contrast there were 18 cash settlements totaling $6.4 million in 2015 and 27 settlements totaling $10.9 million in 2014.
Insurance companies are required under state law to report details of medical malpractice claims to the state each year. The Division of Insurance has made public a limited amount of that information. The names of the patients who received the settlements as well as the health providers accused of malpractice are not public, although insurance companies are required to report them.
The dozen cash settlements last year ranged from a high of $480,000 to $4,158. The amounts only represent what insurance companies paid and not what hospitals or other health providers might have paid.
In 2014, the largest payment was $3 million, and in 2015 there were two $1 million settlements reported by insurance companies.
A spokeswoman with MMIC, an insurance company that provides the majority of medical liability coverage in South Dakota, did not immediately return a phone call.
Dr. Robert Van Demark, the president of the South Dakota State Medical Association, said in a statement that medical liability claims have declined significantly since 1992, a trend that could reflect tort reform of malpractice lawsuits and the industry’s efforts to improve patients safety.
Still, the current medical liability system of escalating and unpredictable awards and the high cost of defending against lawsuits, including those without merit, contribute to the cost of insurance premiums and add billions to the cost of health care, Van Demark said. Sixty-five percent of all claims are either dropped, withdrawn or dismissed.
“Also note that given a relatively small number of claims are filed annually in South Dakota, and that some claims take longer to resolve than others, there can be large swings in the number of claims resolved or payments made over a relatively short time period, such as three years, so it’s also important to review this information over time to determine actual trends,” Van Demark said.
Lawyers who try medical malpractice suits say that the system is stacked against patients. The cases are costly to bring and lawyers and state laws cap damages. In South Dakota, jury verdicts in favor of patients are rare, and many lawyers have simply stopped taking the cases.
A study last year concluded that preventable medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States.
The number of medical malpractice claims filed or closed also continues to fall. In 2014 companies reported 163 claims. There were 125 filed or closed in 2016.
The data show that the vast majority of medical malpractice claims made by patients do not end up with cash settlements.