The truth about secret settlements in medical malpractice lawsuits

When it comes to various forms of medical misconduct or negligence, one of the biggest driving forces in settling the case is not whether the doctor, healthcare worker or medical establishment caused the injury, but the potential for the case to bring negative publicity via a public trial.

Although the injured party winds up with a settlement, it is under the condition that they do not disclose details of the case. It comes with a non-disclosure clause. The settlement, in effect becomes a form of “hush money” that is designed to prevent a public trial. The responsible party is trying to save their reputation by keeping the settlement closed. For the injured party, the motivation to accept a settlement under these conditions comes from simply wanting the ordeal to be over, or their desire to keep the case as private as possible.

Confidentially, the court’s decision

Even when the case is litigated, the parties involved often request confidentiality, but the judge can refuse the request and force the matter into court. A judge is likely to make this call if he or she believes that the public has a right to know about a case, especially when it may affect medical decisions they might make for themselves and their family.

In one recent case, a judge in Pennsylvania refused to allow settlement records to be closed when one pregnant woman’s medical condition was not properly monitored, resulting in her twins being stillborn at just over 33 weeks gestation. The defense had asked to seal the settlement of more than $4 million dollars, but the judge refused to comply, stating that records should only be closed in exceptional circumstances. He noted that since the case had already been covered in the media, there was not sufficient cause to attempt to hide the settlement.

Open vs. closed settlements

Ann article published by JAMA Internal Medicine, debated reasons to encourage open settlements in malpractice cases. The reasons to encourage these included the belief that more transparency would prompt more safety improvements, internal reporting and surveillance. Open communication within the organization may lead to better risk management strategies. It also noted that the acceptance of responsibility to the families involved in the incidents and giving the families the right to address their concerns in order to ensure future quality of care. The responsibility should also extend to the reporting of errors to regulating bodies, such as licensing boards and health departments in order to keep ratings accurate. Ensuring public transparency and allowing those affected to be advocates for charitable causes designed to prevent similar medical tragedies from happening to others.

Regardless of your opinion on whether malpractice settlements should be revealed or not, the fact that they are negotiated with non-disclose clauses on a fairly regular basis shows that medical mistakes are happening far more often than most people realize. If you or a loved one were injured or killed due to medical mistakes, a malpractice lawyer can help you investigate who was responsible for the errors and give you a better chance at receiving the compensation you need to move beyond those errors and move forward with your life.