Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons 31(16):p 893-900, August 15, 2023. | DOI: 10.5435/JAAOS-D-23-00174




Orthopaedic surgery is one of the most cited specialties among legal claims. Malpractice lawsuits are financially burdensome, increase defensive practices, and incur a notable emotional toll on defendants. We sought to determine the effect of malpractice lawsuits on professional well-being and self-reported medical errors among orthopaedic surgeons.


We surveyed 305 members of the American Orthopaedic Association to collect information on experiences with medical malpractice lawsuits, demographic and practice characteristics, professional well-being on the Professional Fulfillment Index, and self-reported medical errors. Multivariable logistic regression identified predictors of malpractice lawsuits, professional well-being, and self-reported medical errors.


Seventy-three percent (224 of 305) respondents had been involved in a medical malpractice lawsuit. The odds of experiencing a malpractice lawsuit increased by seven percent with each year in practice (OR = 1.07, 95% CI: 1.04 to 1.10, P < 0.001) and with specialization in spine surgery. Respondents with a lawsuit in 2 years before the survey reported comparable professional well-being and medical error rates with those without a lawsuit. However, compared with respondents without a lawsuit, respondents with a lawsuit more than 2 years in the past were less likely to report burnout (OR = 0.43, 95% CI: 0.20 to 0.90, P = 0.03) and more likely to report a medical error in the past year, which resulted in patient harm (OR = 3.51, 95% CI: 1.39 to 8.91, P = 0.008).


While malpractice lawsuits negatively affect professional well-being, this effect resolves with time. The effect on medical errors may be more permanent; orthopaedic surgeons who have experienced a lawsuit reported greater rates of medical errors even after these legal issues have been settled. Among orthopaedic surgeons dealing with lawsuits, supportive interventions to protect professional well-being and mitigate the factors which lead to greater medical errors are needed.

Level of Evidence: 

Prognostic Level III.