I hear from my friends all the time about the need for tort reform. They say that good companies and good doctors and hospitals are going out of business as a result of “frivolous lawsuits.” I will not turn my back on my friends but…they are as “green as grass”!
Want to hear about how tort reform is working in California? Dave Stewart’s 72-year-old mother went to Stanford University Medical Center for double knee-replacement surgery in April. Four days later, she was dead. To Stewart, an anesthesiologist, it seemed a clear case of medical malpractice. After the operation, his mother developed sharp abdominal pain that she described as “10 on a scale of 1 to 10,” according to her medical records. The hospital failed to diagnose the cause of her pain and continued to treat her with narcotics. Her vital signs became unstable and she was moved to the intensive care unit, but she died of complications from an untreated bowel obstruction.
The problem: no lawyer would take the case! Dr. Stewart approached two dozen lawyers. One after another declined to take the case, always for the same reason: It wasn’t worth the money. Why? In 1975, California enacted legislation capping malpractice payments after an outcry from doctors and insurers that oversized awards and skyrocketing insurance rates were driving physicians out of the state.
The law limited the amount of money for “pain and suffering” — usually the physical and emotional stress caused from an injury — to $250,000. There is no limit on what patients can collect for loss of future wages or other expenses. The result is that when an elderly, retired person dies due to medical negligence the recoverable damages are too small to justify the thousands of dollars in litigation expense required to prosecute the case over an average of two years.
Think about situations like this the next time you hear folks talking about the need to limit damages and enact tort reform. The elderly person who dies could be someone in your family!