Judge Orders N.J. Med-Mal Data Made Public

June 14, 2004

New Jersey patients soon will be able to use a new state Web site to obtain information about doctors, including details about malpractice claims they have settled.

The release of the information cleared a legal hurdle when a federal judge allowed the state to release the records. Public notification of malpractice payouts was signed into law last year by the governor, and was the subject of a lawsuit brought against the state by a daily newspaper, The Record of Bergen County.

Doctors had opposed a state judge’s order earlier this year to release records of the payments, which are made by the companies that provide malpractice insurance. Doctors said settlements are neither admissions of negligence nor measures of competence.

“This does nothing but besmirch the names of doctors. We’re back to Hester Prynne and ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ This is absurd,” said Robert Conroy, attorney for the Medical Society of New Jersey.

But U.S. District Court Judge William G. Bassler said withholding the malpractice payment records would mean people are “deprived of information that can be vital in making one of the most serious decisions in one’s life — one’s health care.”

Data released by the state Division of Consumer Affairs showed that over the last five years New Jersey doctors’ insurance companies have paid more than $890 million in malpractice payments, The Star-Ledger of Newark reported.

Those payments were on behalf of 2,333 doctors, or a little more than 10 percent of the state’s 22,000 physicians, the newspaper reported.

Doctors in recent years have blamed the high cost of malpractice insurance in New Jersey for leading some to leave the profession, or the state. Gov. James E. McGreevey last week signed into law a measure that creates a $78 million fund to help physicians pay for the insurance.

Doctors said lawyers often advise them to settle malpractice lawsuits — whether they acted wrongly or not — to avoid large jury awards. Conroy said the release of settlement information will prolong those legal battles.

The state-run Web site with details about doctors will become active June 23, which is when more information about the site will be available, according to the state Division of Consumer Affairs.

The site will contain information on the malpractice payouts, as well as physicians’ schooling, specialties and any disciplinary action they have faced.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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