Risk Management

Limits of Liability

By Kimberly Wittchow, JD, OMIC Staff Attorney

Digest, Spring 2004

Press coverage of the industrywide rise in medical malpractice claims frequency and severity is abundant. This has many insureds questioning whether their current limits of liability are adequate for the increasingly litigious environment in which they practice. To help insureds assess their coverage limits and needs, this article will address what is meant by limits of liability, how to select limits, and how changing limits affects coverage if a claim arises.

Your limits of liability are the maximum dollar amounts of indemnity OMIC will pay on your behalf as a result of covered claims. Indemnity is the amount of damages awarded in a lawsuit or agreed to in a settlement between the parties. OMIC will pay your reasonable defense costs in addition to your liability limits.

All OMIC insureds have two separate limits: the per claim, or “medical incident,” limit and the aggregate limit. The per claim limit is the maximum amount of indemnity OMIC will pay per insured for all damages caused by any one medical incident, or by any series of related medical incidents involving any one patient, regardless of the number of injuries, claimants or litigants, or the number of claims (notices, demands, lawsuits) that result. The aggregate limit, on the other hand, is the maximum amount OMIC will pay per insured for all claims made and reported  during the policy period.

How to Select Limits

There are several factors to consider when selecting limits of liability. The limits you require may vary with changes in your state’s malpractice liability climate, the procedures you perform, and the makeup of your practice. Therefore, you should continually assess your current needs and corresponding coverage.

First, review the claims statistics for ophthalmologists. For example, as of February 2004, OMIC’s average indemnity payment was $130,166 and its largest indemnity payment was $1.8 million.

Second, consider your state’s risk relativity. When OMIC looks at risk relativity, it compares the number of insureds, the number of total claims, and the average indemnity paid per claim in each state. Under this analysis, due to the fact that OMIC has a large number of insureds in these states, OMIC’s highest claims activity is currently in California, Texas, and Illinois. For selecting limits, however, a better way to look at risk relativity might be to compare the average rate of claims per insured per state. OMIC insureds in Louisiana and Michigan currently experience the highest claims frequency.

Third, find out what liability limits your peers are carrying. The majority of OMIC insureds (65%) carry $1 million per claim/$3 million aggregate limits. Higher limits of $2 million per claim/and either $4 million or $6 million aggregate limits are selected by 21% of insureds. OMIC’s lowest offered limits of $500,000/$1.5 million are carried by 6% of insureds, while 4% select the highest limits OMIC offers, $5 million/$10 million. The remaining 4% of insureds carry other combinations of limits, including lower limits available exclusively to physicians who participate in their state’s patient compensation fund.

Fourth, consider the risks related specifically to your practice. Is your subspecialty one in which there is high claims frequency (e.g., cataract surgery) or large damage awards (e.g., neonatal care)? Do you share your coverage and limits with any ancillary employees or your sole shareholder corporation? On the other hand, have you ceased performing most surgical procedures or limited your practice to part time?

Fifth, assess your level of risk aversion. Would higher limits make you feel more secure because of the large indemnity cushion or less secure because of the “deep pockets” potentially discoverable by the plaintiff?

Finally, check with your hospital and state licensing board because they may specify the minimum amount of coverage you must carry. Also note that OMIC generally requires all OMIC-insured physiciansin practice together to carry the same liability limits. The practice’s legal entity cannot be insured at higher limits than those of the physicians.

Which Limits Apply to a Claim?

You should consider how changing your limits will affect the amount of indemnity available to you if a claim should arise. The limits of liability that apply to a claim are those limits that are in effect as of the date the claim is first made against you and first reported in writing to OMIC.  In other words, if you increase or decrease your coverage after you’ve reported a claim made against you to OMIC, the limits that you carried when you reported the claim, not the new limits, will be applied to the claim.

Subject to underwriting review and approval, you may increase or decrease your limits of liability at any time during the policy period (although OMIC typically does not consider requests to change policy limits while a claim is pending). If you are in group practice, discuss this desired change with your practice administrator and partners. Your OMIC underwriter can provide you with the most recent OMIC data to help you determine which limits are appropriate for you. However, OMIC representatives are not in a position to offer you advice. If you need further assistance, please consult your personal attorney.

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