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How damage caps affect justice

Published on December 31st, 2007

Here is an interesting article about a pro tort reform doctor who has had a change of heart after experiencing first hand the law of unintended consequences as a result of tort reform.  Here is an excerpt from that article.

Dave Stewart’s mother went to the hospital for surgery in April. Four days later, she was dead.
To Stewart, an anesthesiologist, it seemed a classic 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. Stewart and his two sisters wanted to sue, and they approached two dozen lawyers. One after another declined to take the case, always for the same reason: It wasn’t worth the money.

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.  Proponents say it discourages "frivolous" lawsuits.   The cap on pain and suffering has never been raised nor tied to inflation.

Yet a Times analysis of state court records, physician payment data and insurer financial records suggests that the cap is increasingly preventing families such as the Stewarts from getting their day in court.

Some malpractice victims and their families say the benefits of the law have swung too far in favor of doctors. Without accountability, some ask, what will keep physicians from making careless mistakes?

On average, California juries (which are rarely informed of the cap during trials) awarded $800,000 in malpractice death cases from 1995 to 1999, but the amounts were later reduced to $250,000 under the law. This suggests that medical malpractice victims and their families could be reaping much larger payouts than the law allows.

Recent malpractice premium increases may have had more to do with insurers’ business models and financial investments — including documented losses in their investment portfolios in recent years — than with their core businesses.

Stewart, of San Diego, said he had long been a MICRA advocate, believing it was in the best interest of doctors and patients. Not anymore.

After he and his family got over the initial shock of losing their mother, they wanted justice. Most attorneys turned them down over the phone, although three agreed to meet in person. Last summer, the entire family and their 80-year-old father made the trip to San Francisco and Oakland for meetings.

One lawyer said he would take the case only if the family paid the expected $50,000 in trial costs upfront.

San Francisco lawyer Brad Corsiglia at first seemed interested but later sent a letter dated July 11, 2007, that read: "As you can understand, with a cap of $250,000, we are limited in the type of case we can take on a contingency fee basis to only those cases that involve catastrophic economic losses."

"In 1975 you could buy a house for that money, and today what does it get you?" asked Stewart, whose parents would have celebrated their 54th anniversary last month. "Every year MICRA stays the same is another year that people who have been wronged will be denied the same justice."

Some state courts have struck down malpractice caps that didn’t rise over time. Last month, an Illinois circuit court judge ruled unconstitutional a 2005 state law that caps noneconomic damages in medical liability cases.

In 2006, a Louisiana appeals court ruled that its state malpractice cap, established in 1975, did not adequately compensate patients and needed to be raised to $1.6 million. The ruling was overturned this year by the state’s Supreme Court.

Some families who succeed at trial in California are often surprised at how little money they see in the end.

Becky Dessenberger’s 2-year-old son, Jacob, died at Children’s Hospital in Oakland in 2004 after surgery to repair a foot. Her son, who was suffering from bronchitis, was given a high dose of pain medication though the drug is known to cause slower breathing. He died the next day.

In 2006 the family settled with the hospital, which acknowledged no wrongdoing, for just under the $250,000 cap. After deducting for trial costs and lawyer fees, Dessenberger, 36, of Suisun City, said the family received "a little over" $100,000.

Dessenberger said no money would help ease her grief, but the small amount felt to her and her family like a slap in the face.

"Because he was a baby, this is all he was worth," she said. "I think it is horrible. I don’t think it’s fair."

Joe Pioletti
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