An article in the Baltimore Sun last week covered the concerns of doctors and hospitals in Maryland stemming from two recent medical malpractice awards in that state. As I was reading the article, I felt compelled to respond to a few points.
The article states that
Doctors and hospital officials worry that juries, particularly in Baltimore City, are making decisions out of sympathy for sick patients rather than science. In the process, physicians said, these decisions may create an unrealistic benchmark for what future juries are willing to award — and lawyers are willing to seek — in such cases. Such rich awards also could drive up the cost of malpractice insurance for doctors, which likely would be passed along to patients.
For starters, juries in a medical malpractice case would never hear or learn the amount that some other jury in some different case awarded. That isn't admissible. So lawyers for a plaintiff can't argue to the jury that "just last week a jury awarded . . . ." That's just not an accurate concen.
Second, it is well-documented that there is no link between medical malpractice awards and the cost of healthcare. In fact, Public Citizen recently released a report detailing that malpractice payments continue to come down and are just 0.14% of the entire cost of health care in this country. It is total fear-mongering to suggest that malpractice cases add to teh cost of health care.
What does add to the cost of health care are medical errors. Sanjay Gupta recently suggested that as many as 200,000 Americans die each year from medical errors.
In contrast to the very detailed report by Public Citizen, the Sun article notes that
The AMA and the American Tort Reform Association acknowledge that there are no statistics to show that higher premiums, resulting from large jury awards, push doctors out. But both say there is anecdotal evidence of the impact.
One doctor states the following:
I sympathize with the victims, but these types of cases are detrimental," said Riggle, administrative director of trauma at Meritus Medical Center in Hagerstown. "It drives up the cost to do medicine and causes physicians to take precautions in terms of being willing to take care of these kinds of patients."
But what about the victims? Lost in the entire article is the fact that people are seriously injured from medical mistakes. Are we to brush justice aside because of cost? Should we let those responsible for serious injury skirt their obligations because of one or two large jury verdicts?
The jury system is as old as the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the deprivation of the right to trial by jury was one of the crimes the revolutionaries charged against the King in the Declaration.
These large jury awards show one thing: health care is very expensive in this country. Remember, in Maryland pain and suffering damages are capped. So the bulk of these awards include things like future medical expenses. Who pays those bills if the person or hospital responsible doesn't? (Or, more accurately, their insurance companies.
The answer: you, the tax payer. When valid medical malpractice cases are not pursued and a victim needs future health care, most of the time the victim ends up collecting Medicare or Medicaid. Our jury system just seeks to hold those responsible for injury accountable.
At first blush these awards might seem extreme. But consider the damage that can be; consider the high cost of future health care; and consider that pain and suffering damages are capped in Maryland.
Given those facts, shouldn't we respect the work of the jury that heard the evidence, rather than the fear-mongering by insurance companies? After all, our founders were willing to enter into war to protect the right to trial by jury.
Both an Emory School of Law graduate and MBA graduate of Goizueta Business School at Emory, Chris Nace focuses his practice on areas of medical malpractice, drug and product liability, motor vehicle accidents, wrongful death, employment discrimination and other negligence and personal injury matters.