Confidentiality = Secrecy

Last week I spoke to a woman who in my experience, likely has a malpractice case against a Virginia surgeon. She asked if there had been prior lawsuits against the surgeon and I told her that in fact I personally knew of four. 

She was shocked. She had spent significant time researching the doctor’s reputation online, including a review of his Board of Medicine profile. The profile however, said nothing about four lawsuits (with similar injuries to the one she suffered) and she couldn’t understand how they had been kept quiet. Hadn’t the Board of Medicine been updated on this doctor’s bad outcomes and weren’t they aware of the lawsuits and settlements?

Wasn’t there a rule – bad doctors lose their license? If you get sued a lot – they take it away?

In a word, no.

Most likely – settlement of the lawsuits each came with confidentiality clauses that stated the family would:

  • Not mention the lawsuit or settlement to anyone but their attorneys and tax advisers
  • Not report the settlement to local media
  • Not report the settlement to anyone else 

This means, almost all lawsuits that are settled are done so with little to no public record that the average person can find online. Even a skilled investigator would have to know where to look (and often visit a court house or two) to determine whether valid claims were settled in the past by a doctor or hospital. Also, it was likely the doctor was dropped from the lawsuit last minute through what is called a Non-Suit, so he/she didn’t have to tell the Bd. of Medicine about the claim. 

So why all this secrecy?

Exactly the reason you can imagine. 

Doctors and hospitals don’t want people to know when their doctors make mistakes and money is paid. They don’t want the bad press, and the likely consumer response which may be to find a different doctor. 

Most towns have a few horrible tales of doctor Z who has been sued 7 times, or doctor Y who can barely get insurance – but those stories are not covered by the media, or reported to the Bd. of Medicine in such a way that you, the average patient, can discover what is hidden behind the confidentiality agreements. 

Is this all fair? Probably not. 

Is it legal? Yes. Yes it is. 

The same way it is legal for an adult film actress to sign a confidentiality agreement that she will not discuss past sexual relationships, or the way a divorced couple walks away from a marriage without the Court file reflecting where every penny went. 

The real question then becomes — How can patients really dig in and research their providers.

In Virginia, the best way to look is by searching your local county or city circuit court records. Want to see if Doctor X has been sued?

  • Visit: http://www.courts.state.va.us/
  • Click on the left side – Virginia’s Court System (in the red bar)
  • Then click on Circuit Court
  • Then pick the County
  • Then pick CIVIL case
  • and type in the doctor’s Last name – Wowee – see what comes up! 

Multiple lawsuits in a short period of time? That doesn’t happen in Virginia with good doctors and surgeons. It typically reflects bad care.  

Want to see how a local surgeon stacks up against other doctors? Check out pro-publica’s Surgical Scorecard https://projects.propublica.org/surgeons/

Don’t assume a google search will show you everything that is there. Dig deeper. And hopefully, if you don’t like what you see you can find a new physician. 

Lauren Ellerman

Lauren Ellerman

In 2011, Lauren Ellerman was named "Young Lawyer of the Year" by the Roanoke Bar Association for her work in the community. To speak with Lauren about your personal injury case, contact her at lellerman@frithlawfirm.com.