Health Law and Ethics
July 11, 2001

No-Fault Compensation for Medical InjuriesThe Prospect for Error Prevention

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Mass.


Health Law and Ethics Section Editors: Lawrence O. Gostin, JD, the Georgetown/Johns Hopkins University Program in Law and Public Health, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Md; Helene M. Cole, MD, Contributing Editor, JAMA.

JAMA. 2001;286(2):217-223. doi:10.1001/jama.286.2.217

Leading patient safety proposals promote the design and implementation of error prevention strategies that target systems used to deliver care and eschew individual blame. They also call for candor among practitioners about the causes and consequences of medical injury. Both goals collide with fundamental tenets of the medical malpractice system. Thus, the challenge of addressing error in medicine demands a thorough reconsideration of the legal mechanisms currently used to deal with harms in health care. In this article, we describe an alternative to litigation that does not predicate compensation on proof of practitioner fault, suggest how it might be operationalized, and argue that there is a pressing need to test its promise. We tackle traditional criticisms of "no-fault" compensation systems for medical injury—specifically, concerns about their cost and the presumption that eliminating liability will dilute incentives to deliver high-quality care. Our recent empirical work suggests that a model designed around avoidable or preventable injuries, as opposed to negligent ones, would not exceed the costs of current malpractice systems in the United States. Implementation of such a model promises to promote quality by harmonizing injury compensation with patient safety objectives, especially if it is linked to reforms that make institutions, rather than individuals, primarily answerable for injuries.