A recent verdict in Long Island, New York awarded a family $130 million after a decade of litigation and appeals. This is the second largest medical malpractice verdict in New York history, and defense attorneys are less than thrilled. The hospital’s lawyers, in the popular refrain of institutions facing payments, declared that the jury was out of control, and that this case was a “powerful argument for even more tort reform”. However, as author and attorney Steven Cohen demonstrates in his thorough analysis of the case in question, Reilly v. St Charles Hospital, “large medical malpractice verdicts may be the strongest drivers in making healthcare safer.”
Tort reform was spearheaded during the Regan administration to achieve three main goals. The first was to reduce the amount of frivolous lawsuits; the second, to cut healthcare costs while ensuring quality healthcare; and lastly, to lower malpractice insurance rates for doctors, and make sure that doctors did not leave the practice. Frivolous lawsuits are often described as “spilled coffee suits”, referencing Liebeck v. McDonalds Restaurants, in which a woman spilled hot coffee on herself at a McDonald’s drive through. This garnered excellent press coverage for tort reform advocates, but was incredibly misleading: this case involved third degree burns, skin grafts, and two years of subsequent medical treatment. Though not all supposedly frivolous lawsuits involve McDonald’s coffee, many personal injury and medical malpractice cases are labeled “frivolous” on principle.
As it turns out, truly frivolous lawsuits are likely much less common than tort reform advocates believe. According to Cohen’s research, 46% of plaintiffs will drop a med-mal case before trial. Of the remaining 54% that do go to trial, 57% favor doctors and hospitals, and $462,000 is the average settlement award for a plaintiff.
One of the unintended consequences of tort reform is the increase in cases against doctors and hospitals. Shortened statues of limitations require injured parties to bring a case within a more immediate timeframe, causing “plaintiffs [to] file suits that name every doctor who could conceivably be liable in the case.” Tort reform, if anything, has increased the prevalence of lawsuits. To call them frivolous, however, would be a stretch.
In both his Bloomberg editorial and his contribution to The Inner Circle, Cohen asks the reader to consider what message a $130 million jury verdict will send to different parties. Based on interviews with the Reilly v. St Charles Hospital jurors, the verdict was awarded not out of vindication, but out of a sense of duty and fair compensation.
In addition, Cohen gives us the anecdote of anesthesiologists in 1983 who were burdened by high malpractice premiums and higher rates of litigation. This led the American Society of Anesthesiologists to re-evaluate all of their procedures and suggest improvements to the field of anesthesiology. Since that time, the mortality rate from anesthesia administrations is less than 1% of what it used to be, and anesthesiologists’ malpractice premiums are some of the lowest in medicine.
These two events, observed in tandem, show us that allowing lawsuits to pile up and pay out extraordinary awards is evidence of a larger problem. If medical professionals and the medical industry are facing such high rates of litigation, and premiums continue to increase, it may be time for other medical specialties to take the route of the anesthesiologists and reevaluate. If this fails to happen, torts will continue until there is reform.
Written by Shayna Keyles.