The medical establishment has argued that it's the current litgious nature of society -- not bad medicine -- that is driving up the cost of malpractice insurance. The doctor's lobby contends that physicians in high-risk fields such as obstetrics or surgery should consider themselves lucky if they have never been threatened with lawsuits.

There is evidence from insurance company data, however, that a relatively small number of doctors is responsible for a large share of the claim payouts. Figures from the Medical Mutual Society of Maryland, which insures about 85 percent of the doctors in the state, show that 6.6 percent of the doctors have been responsible for 93.7 percent of the company's payouts and defense costs during the 10-year period from 1976 to 1986.

The same figures show 1 percent of the doctors -- 75 people -- are responsible for $53.8 million in costs, or 54.5 percent of the 10-year total. "That's the highest figure, by far, I've ever heard," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the Public Citizen Health Research Group, a Ralph Nader organization. "You can expect the figures to be highest in states doing the least amount of discipline," he said.