NewYorkUniversity
LawReview

Issues

Author

Joanna C. Schwartz

Results

A Dose of Reality for Medical Malpractice Reform

Joanna C. Schwartz

Every year, medical error kills and injures hundreds of thousands of people and costs billions of dollars in lost income, lost household production, disability, and healthcare expenses. In recent years, hospitals have implemented multiple systems to gather information about medical errors, understand the causes of these errors, and change policies and practices to improve patient safety. The effect of malpractice lawsuits on these patient safety efforts is hotly contested. Some believe that the fear of malpractice liability inhibits the kind of openness and transparency needed to identify and address the root causes of medical error. Others believe that malpractice litigation brings crucial information about medical error to the surface and creates financial, political, and institutional pressures to improve. Yet neither side in this debate offers much evidence to support its claims.

Drawing on a national survey of healthcare professionals and thirty-five in-depth interviews of those responsible for managing risk and improving patient safety in hospitals across the country, I find reason to believe that malpractice litigation is not significantly compromising the patient safety movement’s call for transparency. In fact, the opposite appears to be occurring: The openness and transparency promoted by patient safety advocates appear to be influencing hospitals’ responses to litigation risk. Hospitals, once afraid of disclosing and discussing error for fear of liability, increasingly encourage transparency with patients and medical staff. Moreover, lawsuits play a productive role in hospital patient safety efforts by revealing valuable information about weaknesses in hospital policies, practices, providers, and administration. These findings should inform open and pressing questions about medical malpractice reform and the best ways to continue improving patient safety.

Police Indemnification

Joanna C. Schwartz

This Article empirically examines an issue central to judicial and scholarly debate about civil rights damages actions: whether law enforcement officials are financially responsible for settlements and judgments in police misconduct cases. The Supreme Court has long assumed that law enforcement officers must personally satisfy settlements and judgments, and has limited individual and government liability in civil rights damages actions—through qualified immunity doctrine, municipal liability standards, and limitations on punitive damages—based in part on this assumption. Scholars disagree about the prevalence of indemnification: Some believe officers almost always satisfy settlements and judgments against them, and others contend indemnification is not a certainty. In this Article, I report the findings of a national study of police indemnification. Through public records requests, interviews, and other sources, I have collected information about indemnification practices in forty-four of the largest law enforcement agencies across the country, and in thirty-seven small and mid-sized agencies. My study reveals that police officers are virtually always indemnified: During the study period, governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement. Law enforcement officers in my study never satisfied a punitive damages award entered against them and almost never contributed anything to settlements or judgments—even when indemnification was prohibited by law or policy, and even when officers were disciplined, terminated, or prosecuted for their conduct. After describing my findings, this Article considers the implications of widespread indemnification for qualified immunity, municipal liability, and punitive damages doctrines; civil rights litigation practice; and the deterrence and compensation goals of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.