We’ve looked at numerous aspects of the legal system on our blog over the last few months–ranging from your more standard personal injury related topics like car accidents, slip-and-fall and animal attack injuries, and motorcycle and truck crashes (the sorts of cases handled by this law firm) to other, less common and more off-the-beaten path legal topics such as constitutional rights, patent law and even the NSA surveillance scandal. This is all of a piece, however, because our policy when it comes to keeping you abreast of legal info is that if it’s in the news or relevant to your life in any significant way, we think you should know about it. That’s why recent statistics on medical malpractice (in the form of this 2013 Medical Malpractice Payout Analysis) prompted us to write a quick overview of the theme and get you informed.

Medical malpractice cases–as in much of the injury-related legal world–account for a significant amount of lawsuits filed in this country. The fact that these cases, in which a doctor can be sued for failing to provide adequate care either by action or by omission, also constituted a 3.6 billion dollars in payouts in 2012 (the most recent year for which we have statistics). Even though this number is down 3.4% from 2011 (and has been steadily dropping, albeit slowly, since 2003), it still makes for a truly whopping sum, in consideration of the 12,142 malpractice lawsuits brought that year.

There are plenty of reasons for this trend, but the primary one is simple: at the end of the day, a doctor is accountable for treating a person when he or she is at her most vulnerable, often confused or distressed in addition to suffering from some physical ailment. And the consequences of malpractice can certainly be wide-reaching and devastating; in fact, the severity of the alleged injury in 31% of medical malpractice cases is death. Thus any perceived or alleged failure to follow through on this most important responsibility doctors have, to treat their patients to the utmost of their abilities, is a serious problem indeed.

The most common fault alleged in medical malpractice lawsuits is a failure to diagnose. This means a doctor may have missed, delayed or incorrectly diagnosed an ailment in a patient, which may have led to further complications, injury or a wrongful death. This is not a huge surprise, though, since even findings by the Journal of the American Medical Association confirm that such lapses in diagnosis affect 10 to 20 percent of cases overall.

While it is tempting to look at these numbers and conclude that the US medical system is broken, it is still worth remembering that most malpractice suits are actually won by the physician–and that rather than being a case of medicine itself being at fault, it is simply a function of our free and open legal system that allows patients who feel they’ve been wronged to seek restitution. So even though most doctors will actually find themselves facing a lawsuit at least once in their career, this and other facts shouldn’t constitute an indictment against the field as a whole. It is simply another freedom guaranteed citizens by the US legal framework.