Tort Reform – How Far to Go?

By | March 7, 2011

States as far flung as Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Wisconsin are considering, or have enacted, tort reform measures aimed at reducing the number of meritless lawsuits filed and lowering the cost of malpractice insurance. Even President Barack Obama has gotten into the act, including money in his proposed budget to help states rewrite their malpractice laws.

Proponents say the measures are good for their states’ business climates. Reforms also help bring down the cost of insurance for everyone, as insurance companies don’t have to spend reserves defending lawsuits that should never have been filed in the first place.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill that makes it more difficult to sue businesses by setting new standards for expert testimony and burdens of proof, and places a cap on punitive damages.

The Oklahoma Senate approved a bill supported by Gov. Mary Fallin that limits to $250,000 in damages for pain and suffering.

The Oklahoma bill limits to $250,000 damages for pain and suffering.

In Pennsylvania, a proposed reform package would eliminate the system of joint and several liability in that state. Many in the insurance industry say the move would put downward pressure on premiums and help rein in abuse of the state’s legal system.

While President Obama’s proposals don’t exclude caps on jury awards they do include measures designed to help states to overhaul medical malpractice laws and cut down on tests doctors perform out of fear of lawsuits.

Such reforms have already worked in Texas — lowering medical malpractice premiums and encouraging more doctors to practice there.

But as with all reforms, there is the danger of going too far.

In Wisconsin, opponents say the measure will have unintended consequences and will make it harder for consumers to hold businesses accountable.

Some Oklahoma lawmakers have questioned whether $250,000 is sufficient reparation for a negligent act that leaves a victim severely and irreparably disabled. Others believe the changes limit the important role that juries play in the process.

And, after all, some lawsuits are justified.

Take Connie Plumlee of Collinsville, Okla. She suffers from a mistake made in a hospital operating room that she says has “changed her life completely.” As reported by the Associated Press, Plumlee’s lips were burned off in a fire in the operating room in which she was being treated. She was left disfigured with burns all over her body and can no longer work.

Victims like Plumlee remind us of the human cost of tort reform and suggest there may be a limit to how far such reforms should go.

Topics Oklahoma Wisconsin

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Insurance Journal West March 7, 2011
March 7, 2011
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