It has been over a year since a 26-year-old Springfield, Missouri woman won a $28 million medical malpractice lawsuit, however, she has yet to receive any compensation because the defendant has appealed the verdict.
In the fall of 2012, the young woman began experiencing anxiety and depression to the point that it was interfering with her classes and she spoke about suicide. Over the next few months, her symptoms worsened. After experiencing tremors, balance and concentration problems, insomnia and panic attacks, she sought medical advice. A doctor diagnosed her as having fatigue and depression and prescribed medication. It wasn’t until August 2013, when her mother insisted on an MRI, that doctors discovered significant brain damage resulting from Wilson’s Disease, a rare inherited disorder that causes copper to accumulate in your liver, brain, and other vital organs. As a result of the delay, the woman must now be fed through a tube. Speaking and walking was also severely affected; she requires around-the-clock care.
The lawsuit claimed that the doctor was negligent in allowing the woman to deteriorate for nine months before proper testing was conducted and she was referred to a neurologist. The suit further claimed that an earlier diagnosis would have allowed for effective treatment.
The jury reached a verdict of more than $28 million in favor of the plaintiff; $21 million of which was awarded for future medical expenses. Yet, instead of paying this young victim the compensation determined by a jury of her peers, the hospital wants to pay the $21 million over 58 years at a mere 1.2% interest rate. The defendant is also appealing the jury decision and requesting a new trial, claiming vague jury instructions were given during the original trial. Another issue on appeal because of tort reform is that the hospital doesn’t want to pay post-judgment interest, the amount of money paid while the appeal is pending.
For years, the insurance industry has successfully pushed for “tort reform” in more than half the states, based on the promise that restricting victims’ ability to bring medical malpractice suits would improve health care and reduce its cost. The idea that tort reform is good for the “people” is a farce. In reality, all tort reform does is protect greedy corporations and insurance companies from paying full and fair compensation. And, when there is no accountability, the negligent behavior will continue.
The Founders understood the importance of the right to trial by jury. We trust juries to administer justice in criminal cases; they are called upon to make decisions about guilt or innocence, freedom or prison, even life or death. If you cause a serious auto accident, you are required to pay immediately upon a judgment. If you fail to do so, you are also required to pay interest until payment is made in full. Yet, due to tort reform laws, the terms are different for corporate America, who want you to think that a jury of our peers is no longer up to the task.
There is no amount of money that would compensate this woman for being confined to a wheelchair and feed through a tube for the rest of her life. At the same time, compensation for pain, suffering and future care as well as punishment to the wrongdoer must be part of a pro-safety, pro-citizen model. When “tort reform” bails out big businesses, or defendants engage in frivolous defenses that delay justice, taxpayers end up with the bill. Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid pay for the medical care that should be borne by the responsible party. Welfare, food stamps and other government assistance pays for housing, shelter, transportation and other basic needs that should be borne by the responsible party. Many victims are left to financial ruin, bankruptcy, and poverty because the responsible party avoids responsibility and accountability.
We have been complacent in the face of injustice for too long. We must protect our rights from being trampled on by the powerful healthcare industry and pro-insurance lobbies. It is time for legislators to recognize that they were hoodwinked and begin to look for real solutions to make patients safer. Improving patient safety and preventing errors must be at the core of the medical liability reform discussion. Until patient safety is the first and only priority of health care providers, a lawsuit is the only vehicle to achieve punishment for wrongdoing and prevention from further misconduct.
What do you think?
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.