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California was one of the first states to institute caps on medical malpractice awards back in 1983. The limit is only $250,000 for non-economic damages. Well, recent reports in the Sacramento Business Journal reveal that the largest malpractice insurer in California is paying out less than 10% of what it collects in premiums to pay claims. It is spending far more to defend claims and even more goes directly to profit. Other insurers in California are paying out as little as 3% in claims. As a result, the insurance commissioner is requesting rate decreases.

This points out that caps do not result in reduced premiums for doctors–they result in higher profits for insurance companies. No surprise, since insurance companies are some of the biggest supporters of so-called “tort reform.” Why? Bigger profits.

We don’t need caps and other forms of “tort reform” in this country. What we need is insurance reform.

Congressman Phil Gingrey, Republican from Georgia, is again sponsoring a congressional bill to sharply cut malpractice awards. Interesting, since, as the New York Times reports on February 8, 2011, Congressman Gingrey has been sued for medical malpractice and his insurer has paid a settlement.

The details of the lawsuit are contained in the New York Times article, so no need to repeat them here. Suffice it to say that Congressman Gingrey is also Dr. Gingrey, an obstetrician. And this isn’t the first time he’s introduced bills to protect doctors at the expense of their injured patients.

The simple fact is that good doctors make mistakes and when they do, people die or are badly hurt. Medical malpractice is simply medical negligence. You wouldn’t restrict an award that could be entered against a trucking company that caused a death in an accident would you? If not, then why would you restrict the right for the victim of medical negligence to be fully compensated? The injuries aren’t any different. Death is still death. Whether the negligent person is a truck driver, an airplane pilot, a company that manufactured a deadly product, or a doctor, negligence is negligence.

And when the person introducing the bill is biased, you have to wonder. Don’t you?

Hot Coffee, The Movie is a documentary entry in this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Hot Coffee is the story everyone thinks they know about crazy “runaway” juries awarding huge sums of money when people do stupid things and hurt themselves.

Well, that version of events was bought and paid for by a massive public relations campaign just like the one the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is currently running to try to get the public to buy into “reforming” our justice system. The problem is, this version of events, like all great lies, is founded on only a grain of truth. Stella Lieback, a 79 year old woman who, in 1992, spilled a cup of McDonald’s scalding coffee in her lap causing severe third degree burns. What isn’t usually talked about is the years of surgery and medical treatment Stella endured. What’s never discussed is the fact that the size of the jury’s verdict reflected their outrage when they learned that McDonald’s had been sued numerous times over severe burns caused by their coffee and that despite the known danger, they continued to serve their coffee at a temperature that could not be consumed by most individuals because by keeping it scalding hot, they could sell it longer without having to brew fresh pots of coffee. The temperature of the coffee was mandated by McDonald’s corporate offices in order to save a few cents.

Hot Coffee is an important piece of documentary film, telling not only the story of Stella Lieback, but others who have been destroyed by the public relations campaigns to limit your access to the Courts.

Today the 112th Congress was sworn in and the new Republican Majority ceremoniously conducted a reading of the U.S. Constitution. Hopefully, they listened when they read the 7th Amendment right to trial by jury. If they hold the Constitution as dear as they claim they do, then they will oppose any attempts to limit your right to trial by jury, whether it is imposing caps on lawsuits or punitive damages. A jury of your neighbors will know what is right. That’s what our founding father’s wrote into the Constitution.

The American Tort Reform Foundation, the business lobby group that annually names Madison and St. Clair counties in Illinois, as “judicial hellholes” is at it again. In it’s annual attempt to scare the wits out of voters and small businesses, and to influence pro-business “tort reform” legislation, the ATRF has gone beyond it’s poorly masked attempt to influence jurors in what it views as “plaintiff friendly” venues. Now it has taken to including on the list venues which it believes are less troublesome than so-called hellholes, but worth mentioning.In this group it places St. Louis County, Missouri. Now, as an attorney practicing as a plaintiff’s attorney in Missouri for nearly 20 years, this would be laughable if the intent were not so calculatedly evil.For those who are not familiar with the political structure in Missouri, the City of St. Louis is not part of St. Louis County. The City of St. Louis operates as its own county. And the City of St. Louis has been known, for many years, as a “plaintiff-friendly” venue, justified or not. And it is true that plaintiff’s attorneys always felt they could get a fair shake in front of a City jury. Now, St. Louis County has always been a different animal. St. Louis County has been known as a “plaintiff-hostile” venue, where cases with strong liability and serious damages go to die. Ask any practicing trial lawyer in Missouri, and St. Louis County will be listed as a conservative venue. That’s not to say that plaintiff’s can’t win in St. Louis County, they can. Just as a strong liability case can be won in almost any venue. It is just that the perception has always been that juries in St. Louis County, like those in other conservative venues, generally seem to hold plaintiff’s to a higher legal standard than the law requires. While a civil case is to be decided on a preponderance of the evidence, it always seemed that conservative juries seemed to apply a reasonable-doubt standard.And that brings us back to the American Tort De-Form Foundation. In recent years there have been a few substantial verdicts rendered in St. Louis County where liability was clear and damages were severe. Such awards were clearly warranted and they haven’t been over-turned on appeal. This “trend” leads the ATRF to label St. Louis County as a near-hellhole. Preposterous!The reason for this designation is clear. The ATRF and its allies are seeking to taint jury pools. And taint them they will. In 2005 I tried a case in St. Clair County, one of the “hellholes.” Well, it isn’t a hellhole because of the jurors. The ATRF and it’s ilk so poisoned the jury pool that, in response to a written questionnaire prepared by the trial judge, 95% of the jury pool stated that “frivolous lawsuits” were driving up malpractice insurance rates and driving doctors out of Illinois. Interestingly enough, once the jurors heard a little bit about the medical malpractice case they were to hear, a vast majority agreed that my client’s suit wasn’t frivolous and that they would listen to the evidence before they made up their minds. The case settled on day 3 of trial.There are no “judicial hellholes,” only thinly veiled attempts by the pro-business lobby to do anything possible to improperly influence jurors, voters and legislatures with ridiculous “studies” which prove only that if you pay enough for it, you can get a “study” to say anything you want, even that one of the most conservative venues in Missouri can be labeled as a “hellhole.”

As a trial lawyer, I’m asked this question all the time: How do you put a dollar figure on a human life? There is no easy answer. Every human life has value and no amount of money can ever replace a life. These contradictory ideas are at the heart of the problems that juries face every day in this country when they are called upon to do just that: place a dollar value on a human life. So, is there any guidance? Actually, there is …The United States places a value on human life all the time. Cold, hard dollar values. The U.S. does this in order to evaluate the costs and benefits of various safety and other programs. The Environmental Protection Agency values a single human life at $7.22 million. The federal Department of Transportation has done the same calculation and has come up with a figure of $5.8 million. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has long held the value of a single human life is $5 million. The U.S. uses these figures like this: If a program would save 3 lives and would cost $10 million, then the cost-benefit analysis would be in favor of spending the money to save those 3 lives.So, if our federal government values a single human life at $5 million dollars or more, then how can various state governments, including Missouri and Illinois, place caps on what a jury can award for a human life, at levels far below the value that our federal government places on a human life? In Missouri, state law caps “non-economic damages” at $350,000 per person. $350,000 is only 7% to less than 5% of the true value. In Illinois, the cap stands at $500,000. These caps are outrageous and should be stricken down and repealed so that a jury can decide, on its own, on the basis of the community’s shared values and beliefs, the value of a human life.