Legal Articles

August 27, 2010

Medical Tort Reform

A physician misdiagnoses an illness. A hospital patient is administered the wrong medicine. A wad of gauze is left inside a body cavity. Tragically, thousands of people die or are maimed as a result of negligence, ineptitude or carelessness by health care professionals and institutions.

The only recourse for patients and survivors is to sue the medical professional and/or the organization responsible for the blunder, and in some settlements, millions of dollars are awarded to the victim or their families.

A "tort" is a wrongful act for which a civil action can be brought. According to the Institute for Legal Reform, medical malpractice tort costs have increased 11.7 percent annually since 1975 (compared to 9 percent increase for all other tort costs), making it the fastest growing tort area in the United States.

Medical tort reform seeks to cap non-economic punitive damages in lawsuits where patients or their survivors have proven in court that they were the victims of gross medical malpractice.

The soaring punitive damage awards of the past decade, however, have had far-reaching effects on the medical community, and many states and the federal government have enacted legislation to put limits on damage awards.

Washington has not set specific limits on damage awards but the legislature has declared that judgment for non-economic damages cannot exceed the average annual wage and life expectancy of the injured or deceased. The Idaho legislature capped non-economic medical malpractice damages at $250,000 and limits punitive damages to $250,000 or an amount three times of compensatory damages.

Opponents of medical tort reform maintain that punitive damages are only way patients can hold medical professionals and organizations accountable when they kill, maim or injure through negligence. Proponents of medical tort reform, including the American Medical Association, claim it will:
  • Lead to lower health care costs because physicians will not practice "defensive medicine," ordering more tests and treatments that are medically required. The Institute for Legal Reform estimates that $70 to $126 billion a year is spent on unnecessary, defensive tests.
  • Help stop medical professionals from leaving high-risk fields such as obstetrics and neurology for fear of multi-million dollar law suits.
  • Put an end to million dollar lawsuits which can shut down small towns hospitals, leaving communities without nearby health care.
  • Lower insurance premiums by capping jury awards.
  • Help businesses hold down the cost of insurance coverage for employees.
Helpful links:
The Institute for Legal Reform
The Huffington Post
The Medical Malpractice Directory

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