When physicians leave their medical practice to pursue other careers—or even to retire—their legacy of malpractice suits may follow them despite the career shift.

This is the case for Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson, MD, who retired as a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 2013. Carson has surged in recent Republican primary polls to second place behind Donald Trump, perhaps partly on the strength of his credibility as a health care provider at a leading hospital.

A surgeon who performs as many as 400 operations annually, as was the case with a still-practicing Carson, could easily experience six lawsuits spread throughout the course of a 30-year career. It would not be seen as highly unusual. A 2011 study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that about 20% of neurosurgeons face a malpractice claim annually.

No doubt because Dr. Carson is now on the national stage, there is revived discussion about previous malpractice cases involving Dr. Carson.

Receiving particular attention is the case of Karly Bailey, who experienced a pilocytic astrocytoma of the fourth brain ventricle. Bailey and at least one expert (William R. Hudgins, MD) who has examined her case believe that Carson violated the standard of care by aggressively attempting to completely remove a tumor despite the risk of collateral damage to the brainstem.

Another case reported in the National Inquirer and The Guardian, then picked up by the Daily News (New York), purportedly involved a sponge that was not removed at the time of surgery on a Florida woman, Darlene King. In another case, Merryl Reynolds alleged that surgery on her 15-year-old son in 2010 resulted in paralysis from the waist down. Carson is not named in that case, but he was responsible for the boy’s surgery.

The Bailey and Reynolds cases are still pending. The exact count of malpractice cases against Carson during the course of his career remains unclear. Most Maryland malpractice cases are settled before hitting the state’s database used for reporting on Carson’s malpractice history in the state. In addition, in cases filed against Johns Hopkins, suits often name the hospital, not the physician. Whether cases involving Carson represent typical malpractice suits for an active neurosurgeon likely depends on more in-depth investigation. 

Ann Latner, JD, a former criminal defense attorney, is a freelance medical writer in Port Washington, N.Y.