Given the Chance, Tort Reform Works

Physician's Money Digest, August15 2004, Volume 11, Issue 15

A North Carolina physiciantold me he was glad to seeJohn Edwards elected to theUS Senate in 1998. "Better ajunior senator in Washington than in ourcourtrooms," he said. I wonder how hewill feel if Edwards gets to be "a heartbeat away" from the presidency?

When it comes to exploiting civil lawand then thwarting its reform nationally,few can compare to Edwards. I see whyhe behaves the way he does, though.

Gaming the System

When a system pays you millions,you're not going to work hard to changethings. Moreover, when lawyer colleaguesare responsible for two thirds ofyour campaign funds in senatorial racesand then in a US Presidential race (thusyielding a vice presidential nomination),you'll fight to protect that arrangement.That sums up the myopic ways of thisformer malpractice attorney and 2004Democratic vice presidential nominee.

Hopefully, a recent study by the RandCorporation's Institute of Civil Justice(www.rand.org) will open some eyes ontort reform. As Congress and severalstates wrestle with laws that would capmalpractice awards, which now average$1 million, evidence is mounting thatCalifornia's 1975 model law, which limitsjury awards for noneconomic damagessuch as pain and suffering, effectivelyreduces payouts on claims. And thereductions come at the expense oflawyers. The study showed that paymentsto patients were reduced by 15%, whileplaintiff attorney fees dropped by 60%.

Who Suffers?

According to 1995 to 1998 financialdisclosure records, Edwards earned $27million as a trial attorney, with the bulkof the fees coming from medical malpracticelitigation. He has also collected nearly$10 million in campaign contributionsfrom lawyer groups as a senator and inhis failed 2004 presidential campaign.

Lest my readers think I'm this biglawyer-basher, I'll tell you that my father-in-law (someone I greatly admire) was amalpractice trial lawyer. I'm worried thefacts won't get out. While big media blastsRepublican Vice President Dick Cheneyon his ties to Big Business, they're silent onEdwards' buddy-buddy relationship withpro-litigation trial lawyers who reap millionsexploiting the civil justice system.

Health Affairs

In the end it's good people—patientsand their physicians—who suffer whenreasonable tort reform is stymied. AJuly/August 2004 studyfound that 75% of doctors view "everypatient as a potential lawsuit" and 55%admit that the current malpractice system"limits their ability to provide the highest-qualitymedical care."