The medicolegal landscape of spine surgery: how do surgeons fare?

Melvin C. Makhni, Paul J. Park, Jesus Jimenez, Comron Saifi, Jon Michael Caldwell, Alex Ha, Bianca Figueroa-Santana, Ronald A. Lehman, Mark Weidenbaum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Background Context: Because of the limited and confidential nature of most legal data, scarce literature is available to physicians about reasons for litigation in spine surgery. To optimally compensate patients while protecting physicians, further understanding of the medicolegal landscape is needed for high-risk procedures such as spine surgery. Based on these, surgeons can explore ways to better protect both their patients and themselves. Purpose: To characterize the current medicolegal environment of spine surgery by analyzing a recent dataset of malpractice litigation. Study Design: A retrospective study. Patient Sample: All malpractice cases involving spine surgery available to public query between the years of 2010 and 2014. Outcome Measures: Case outcome for spine surgery malpractice cases between the years of 2010 and 2014. Methods: WestlawNext was used to analyze spine surgery malpractice cases at the state and federal level between the years 2010 and 2014. WestlawNext is a subscription-based, legal search engine that contains publicly available federal and state court records. All monetary values were inflation adjusted for 2016. One hundred three malpractice cases were categorized by case descriptors and outcome measures. Claims were categorized as either intraoperative complaints or preoperative complaints. Results: Rulings in favor of the defendant (surgeon) were noted in 75% (77 of 103) of the cases. Lack of informed consent was cited in 34% of cases. For the 26 cases won by the plaintiff, the average amount in settlement was $2,384,775 versus $3,945,456 in cases brought before a jury. Cases involving consent averaged a compensation of $2,029,884, whereas cases involving only intraoperative complaints averaged a compensation of $3,667,530. A significant correlation was seen between increased compensation for plaintiffs and cases involving orthopedic surgeons (p=.020) or nerve injury (p=.005). Wrong-level surgery may be associated with lower plaintiff compensation (p=.055). The length of cases resulting in defense verdicts averaged 5.51 years, which was significantly longer than the 4.34 years average length of settlements or verdicts in favor of plaintiffs (p=.016). Conclusions: Spine surgeons successfully defended themselves in 75% of lawsuits, although the cases won by physicians lingered significantly longer than those settled. Better understanding of these cases may help surgeons to minimize litigation. More than one third of cases involved a claim of insufficient informed consent. Surgeons can protect themselves and optimize care of patients through clear and documented patient communication, education, and intraoperative vigilance to avoid preventable complications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)209-215
Number of pages7
JournalSpine Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2018


  • Compensation
  • Informed consent
  • Jury
  • Medical error
  • Medical malpractice
  • Medicolegal
  • Nerve injury
  • Settlement
  • Spine surgery
  • Wrong level

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Clinical Neurology


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