by Gary Mims
Medical errors can kill. It is only when we know the “how” and the “why” the error happened that the medical community — and the public — can learn from the mistakes. Confidential settlements protect the person or institution that caused the injury, or in astronaut Neil Armstrong’s case, death. Without disclosure, there is no scrutiny. That scrutiny can lead to a process to “fix” what went wrong and thereby prevent a similar error from occurring to someone else. The hospital where Armstrong was treated and then died sought confidentiality to spare itself what would have been widespread negative publicity.
I don’t like confidentiality agreements; they are not good for society as a whole. However, I have to look after the best interest of my client, so when a fair settlement is offered yet tied to confidentiality, I have to advise my clients to do what is in their best interest, which often means accepting the confidentiality terms.
Insurers demand confidentiality to hide the number of incidences of medical negligence. This enables insurers to quote misleading statistics in favor of supporting legislation to limit recovery and to justify their high premiums. For example, if an insurer can report to the state legislature that it won 400 out of 500 cases that went to trial without including the cases that settled with a confidentiality agreement, it might claim that 4 out of every 5 negligence suits are “frivolous.” The real, total numbers would tell a vastly different story. Ask Neil Armstrong’s family if their wrongful death case was “frivolous.”