Tag: Liability by contract

An Alternative to Malpractice

About three decades ago, University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein proposed a radical alternative [gated, but with abstract] to our system of malpractice liability. He called it “liability by contract.” The idea: let patients and doctors voluntarily agree in advance how to resolve things if something goes wrong.

In nonmedical fields, Epstein’s idea is actually quite commonplace. Contracts for performance often have provisions detailing what the parties will do if something goes awry. If the parties disagree, contracts often spell out dispute resolution procedures (such as binding arbitration).

One version of this idea in medicine has already been tried. For years, hospitals asked admitting patients to sign a form agreeing not to sue the hospital or the doctors, no matter how negligent they were. When these forms showed up at the courthouse, however, judges routinely dismissed them on the grounds that the patients were too sick, too scared and too uninformed for there to have been a true meeting of the minds.

My colleagues and I at the National Center for Policy Analysis believe we have found here and here. Let the state legislature decide on the minimum elements (including the amount of monetary compensation) that must be in such contracts in order to make sure patients are fairly protected. Then widely publicize these elements so that people generally understand (before they get sick) what will happen if they opt out of the malpractice system. Courts would be required to accept these contracts as binding.

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