The Civil War slowed medical malpractice suits

October 2, 2012
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Doctors who think people have never been more litigious than they are today can take heart in knowing that people sued their physicians just as much in the 1850s.

This is what Terre Haute attorney Michael J. Sacopulos discovered after months of research. Now, he’s going to a conference for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine to talk about his findings.

Sacopulos and Dr. David A. Southwick, chief of staff at Union Hospital in Terre Haute, are traveling to Maryland this weekend to present on “Effects of the Civil War upon Medical Malpractice Litigation in the United States.” This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam – the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.

Medical professionals have said they think right now is the worst it’s ever been for doctors as far as medical malpractice lawsuits, which led Sacopulos to do a little digging into the history of medical malpractice suits. Sacopulos, a partner at Sacopulos Johnson & Sacopulos, works with physicians to develop strategies and techniques to avoid medical liability claims.

Sacopulos and Southwick turned to the Internet, as well as books and interviews with medical historians, to find that doctors are about as likely to be sued in the 1850s as they are today.

Most of the cases dealt with orthopedic injuries. Plaintiffs argued that the doctor didn’t do a good job either setting broken bones or performing amputations. Back then, medicine was not standardized and anesthesia was still relatively new. Germs and antibiotics weren’t even considered.

Sacopulos said that with some of the quotes he found from doctors in these old cases, you couldn’t tell if someone was saying them today or 160 years ago. The sentiment from physicians was the same: Lawyers are suing us out of business.

 Even if the prevalence of medical malpractice suits hasn’t changed much now as compared to the 1850s, the outcomes tend to favor doctors more these days. Based on his research, Sacopulos said it appeared as though plaintiffs won more cases 160 years ago.

After the Civil War, there was a decrease in medical malpractice claims across the country. Sacopulos attributes this to the standardization of medicine.

This conference isn’t Sacopulos’ first entry into Civil War-era legal history. Sacopulos wrote an article several years ago about President Abraham Lincoln being a medical malpractice defense attorney in Indiana and Illinois, which is how he caught the attention of the museum.
 

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