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Lessons learned: One physician’s malpractice experience

How one physician handled a malpractice lawsuit, and what lessons others can learn from the case.

Edward Zurad, MD, FAAFP, knows first-hand what it’s like to go through a malpractice lawsuit. A solo family practitioner in a rural northeastern Pennsylvania county, Zurad also serves as medical director for several area companies.

In 1996 he found himself among four defendants in a medical malpractice lawsuit filed by an employee at one of the companies, who was experiencing chronic pain after falling from a stepladder. The suit, which also named the emergency department (ED) physician who first treated the employee, the hospital where the ED employee worked, and the radiologist, alleged that the pain resulted from a delayed diagnosis. All the defendants were acquitted following a two-week jury trial in 2002.

Related: You’ve been sued for malpractice: Now what?

In some respects Zurad’s case was unusual, in that the plaintiff was not one of his regular patients, and the case went to trial rather than being settled out of court. But in other ways it was typical, starting with how long it took—six years—to be resolved. That’s due to the nature of the discovery process, Zurad explains, which includes reviewing the records connected to the incident itself and the plaintiff’s subsequent treatment, having expert witnesses review the documents, and deposing all the involved parties, including family members, co-workers, and other treating physicians.

“That’s one area that physicians who haven’t been sued don’t understand,” Zurad says. “The process is lengthy not because anyone’s dragging their feet, but because a systematic review of the data and the development of opinions takes a long time.”

Other suggestions he offers: be open and honest with your attorney, respond to their requests for information as quickly as possible, and follow their advice. “A good attorney can help to illuminate what’s important in a case,” he says. “Sometimes as a defendant it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, and the attorney can help you develop better vision.”

Related: Malpractice insurance considerations for employed physicians

Looking back on the experience, Zurad says he experienced “a lot of stress and sleepless nights,” even though he didn’t believe he did anything wrong in his treatment of the patient, and the experience did not harm his practice financially—apart from the two weeks he spent attending the trial.

In the years since the resolution of his case he has served as an expert witness in other malpractice lawsuits, which lets him see how the experience has affected other physicians. “I can say that most feel a lot of anguish,” he says. “Typically they experience difficulties in their personal and professional lives. And there’s a lot of self-questioning. They ask what they forgot or neglected to do, even though in many cases nothing was neglected or missed. The anxiety of not knowing how a jury will interpret the facts of a case can’t be overstated.”

Still, “I believe in most cases the truth prevails,” he says—especially if the physician thoroughly understands all aspects of the case and is knowledgeable and confident on the stand. “I believe the jury wants to hear the truth,” he says, “and if the physician knows the facts the truth will be told.”