The idea of doctors being responsible for their actions dates back thousands of years. In Hammurabi's Code, of the earliest recorded law codes, there are sections about repercussions for medical mishaps. The code says the doctor should be punished if the doctor makes a mistake causing harm during surgery.
The Hippocratic Oath is something that doctors have been using since the time of the ancient Greeks to swear ethical behavior in their practices. Attributed to Hippocrates, known as the father of Western medicine, the oath has had multiple versions over the years, but they all boil down to "Do no harm." Many modern countries still consider the oath a rite of passage to practice medicine.
The earliest reported case of medical malpractice was Stratton vs. Swanlond which was decided in 1374. A surgeon tried to repair a woman's mangled hand. The woman claimed the surgeon said he could cure her, but after the procedure she was still deformed. The case was dismissed on a procedural error, but the judge set ground rules for many future cases. The judge said that physicians could be held liable when they are negligent, but if properly treated, they would not be liable just because it did not cure the patient.
Just four years after George Washington was inaugurated, the first malpractice case was reported in the United States. The plaintiff claimed a doctor promised to do an operation skillfully, but did the opposite. The plaintiff's wife died as a result. He won the case and received 40 English Pounds.
The American Medical Association is currently the largest organization of physicians and medical students in the United States. A resolution by Dr. Nathan S Davis led to the formation of the association two years later. They went on to set uniform standards for medical education, training, and practice as well as the world's first national code for ethical medical practice.
The courts saw a large increase in cases in the mid-19th Century. The large majority involved fractures and dislocations with less than perfect results. Lawyers claimed the doctors didn't use the proper skill, care or diligence despite many physicians trying to save the limbs instead of amputating them, a common practice of the time.
Courts began publishing standards of medical malpractice awards in the 1970s, leading to one of the fastest growth periods for money being awarded. This led to almost every state passing reform laws to try to keep doctors' insurance premiums down. Some states, like California, passed laws to cap amounts of certain types of damages.
In 1984, 18-year-old Libby Zion was admitted to a New York hospital and treated by two residents. Her conditions worsened throughout the night and she died. Her father sued, claiming the doctors were overworked and negligent -- he won the case. In 1989, New York passed laws to limit the amount of hours residents and doctors could work, laying the groundwork for nationwide reforms.
While legislation helped increase safety for patients, doctors still make mistakes. On average, only 6% of doctors are responsible for about 60% of all malpractice payments. Surgery errors are the leading cause for claims from inpatient incidents at 34%. The overall cost for medical malpractice in the United States is around $55.6 billion dollars, according to recent data.