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The Truth About Tort Reform

You may have seen articles and news stories claiming that “runaway jury awards” and “greedy trial lawyers” are causing medical malpractice premiums to skyrocket, thereby driving doctors out of Washington State.

Doctors around the state are “demanding” that our two Senators and state legislators enact “caps” on jury verdicts to prevent malpractice relates from rising.

Damage Caps Not Effective in Reducing Premium Costs

A number of studies reveal the truth—that caps on damages DO NOT reduce insurance premiums. Caps on damages only restrict the rights of patients who have been seriously injured at the hands of a negligent physician. Most insurers continue to increase malpractice premiums at a rapid pase, regardless of damage caps on medical malpractice lawsuits.

Over the past year and a half, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, Mississippi and Nevada have tried to solve their state’s insurance problems by limiting injured consumers’ right to sue in court (so-called “tort reform”). It has failed every time. The reason is: the causes and solutions to insurance problems lie with the insurance industry, not the legal system.

The number and value of medical malpractice payments made to patients on behalf of Washington doctors have declined significantly, according to an analysis of federal government information released today by the national consumer group Public Citizen.

Findings in Analysis Conducted by Public Citizen

Key findings in the Public Citizen report

  • The number of medical malpractice payments made on behalf of Washington doctors declined 35.6 percent between 1999 and 2004.

  • There was a 42.2 percent drop in the total value of Washington doctors’ medical malpractice payments between 1997 and 2004, when adjusted for medical inflation. The inflation-adjusted peak in 1997 was $50.7 million, compared with $29.3 million in 2004. The drop between 2002 and 2004 was 30.6 percent.

  • The number of million-dollar payments has declined from a high of 10 in 1997 to two in 2004; jury verdicts have remained flat at about 3.2 percent of all payments since 1991.

  • Rather than providing windfalls to patients with minor injuries, Washington doctors’ malpractice payments overwhelmingly benefit those most seriously injured by doctors. The most serious cases account for 84.9 percent of all payments made, compared to only 15.1 percent of all payments for minor injuries.

  • The population-adjusted number of malpractice filings is down 23.1 percent since 1995, dropping from 9.41 per 100,000 people in 1995 to 7.24 in 2004.

  • Malpractice payouts attributable to obstetrics cases doctors say OBs are among the hardest hit by lawsuits are down significantly. The number of payments attributable to OB cases fell 25.4 percent between 1994 and 2004, while the value plummeted by 65.9 percent.

As is the case whenever legislators attempt to reform state laws, misinformation is one of the easiest ways for lobbyists and politicians to influence public opinion. These misleading statements about tort reform have clearly been effective over the years, but as the true facts continue to arise I'm confident that more and more people will understand how tort reform has been designed to limit the legal rights for victims of negligence.