Why do people sue doctors? A study of patients and relatives taking legal action

Lancet. 1994 Jun 25;343(8913):1609-13. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(94)93062-7.


To examine the reasons patients and their relatives take legal action, we surveyed 227 patients and relatives who were taking legal action through five firms of plaintiff medical negligence solicitors. Over 70% of respondents were seriously affected by incidents that gave rise to litigation with long-term effects on work, social life, and family relationships. Intense emotions were aroused and continued to be felt for a long time. The decision to take legal action was determined not only by the original injury, but also by insensitive handling and poor communication after the original incident. Where explanations were given, less than 15% were considered satisfactory. Four main themes emerged from the analysis of reasons for litigation: concern with standards of care--both patients and relatives wanted to prevent similar incidents in the future; the need for an explanation--to know how the injury happened and why; compensation--for actual losses, pain and suffering or to provide care in the future for an injured person; and accountability--a belief that the staff or organisation should have to account for their actions. Patients taking legal action wanted greater honesty, an appreciation of the severity of the trauma they had suffered, and assurances that lessons had been learnt from their experiences. A no-fault compensation system, however well intended, would not address all patients' concerns. If litigation is viewed solely as a legal and financial problem, many fundamental issues will not be addressed or resolved.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude
  • Communication
  • Emotions
  • Family / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Malpractice / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Middle Aged
  • Patients / psychology*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Professional-Family Relations
  • United Kingdom