Ah yes, it's campaign season again. And we have another politician calling for, "federal caps on non-economic and punitive damages related to malpractice" because, "lottery-sized awards and frivolous lawsuits may enrich the trial lawyers but they put a heavy burden on doctors, hospitals and, of course through defensive medicine, they put a burden on the entire health care system."
This time it's Mitt Romney. Cite to the article for further detail: http://www.salon.com/wires/ap/2007/11/20/D8T1MFNO2_romney_health_care/index.html
I don't know where to start. First, with the irony. I thought Gov. Romney was a conservative, but here he wants regulation and a one-size-fits-all federal standard for all patients injured by physician neglect.
The bigger problem is that Gov. Romney either knows nothing about profound injury or--worse--he knows it well, but wants to treat patients' rights as a political issue. There are bigger policy problems. To begin with, punitive damages in medical cases are so rare as to be almost non-existent. They are awarded in the rare case when a surgeon--who is drunk--commits a surgical error or when a doctor who is a pervert sexually abuses a patient. Most doctors and nurses are honorable and good people, and that is why the punitive damage problem is rare.
And then there's the lottery argument. For a buck or two, you can play the lottery in most states. You're likely to lose but if you win, you'll be a multi-millionaire. To "play the lottery" in a medical malpractice case, you need a profound injury--often it's as serious as death, or a life in a wheelchair. No matter what happens you will be that way for life because of a mistake made by an inattentive doctor. That's a tragedy, not a lottery. Anyone who confuses the two does not understand the devastation caused by profound injuries.
And then there's frivolous lawsuits. This is a phrase that really means, "We don't trust juries." For according to Gov Romney and others, juries can't tell when a lawsuit has merit, and they will literally shower the fraudulent party with a torrent of cash. I've been trying cases for over 20 years. Maybe I'm just not a very good lawyer, but it's pretty clear that juries have plenty of sense when it comes to ferreting out good claims and bad ones. Or maybe Gov. Romney and those who rant about the "crisis" have a different agenda.
In the end, it's easy to trust the jury. Our ancestors set up the jury trial system to protect us against politicians and titans. Let's not mess with it, as they knew what they were doing.
David F. Sugerman
Paul & Sugerman, PC