Chief judge plans new effort to see how Madison County courts figure into malpractice debate

By Adam Jadhav
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

A new attempt to address the political and legal debate over medical malpractice litigation in Madison County comes from what is perhaps an unlikely source.

The battle over the issue that made the news almost daily in 2005 largely pitted lawyers, who say the court system is a fair one, against doctors, who see it as biased in favor of plaintiffs. The state legislature also weighed in with limits on awards and insurance reform.

Now, with a new initiative, Chief Judge Ann Callis plans to have judges, normally reserved and reticent, take off their black robes and head out into the community.

Circuit Judge David Hylla, along with associate judges Tom Chapman and Steve Stobbs, will spend the coming months talking to doctors, lawyers and others about public perceptions and hear complaints about the Madison County courthouse as it relates to medical malpractice cases.

The judges will report back to the full circuit and make recommendations for changes in the court process in the county as needed, Callis said.

“This seems like a better way to address it than just having a big meeting where people just talk at each other,” Callis said last week. “Even if it’s simply an image issue, letting (the public) know they’ll be heard will hopefully be positive.”

Lately, the issue has been in the news less than it was a few years ago, when doctors were leaving the area, blaming skyrocketing insurance rates. Insurance companies pointed a finger at aggressive local trial lawyers who pursued hefty court awards. The lawyers themselves said they were being made scapegoats to justify unfair rate hikes.

Now, there have been reports of hires of doctors at area hospitals, replacing those that left or retired in the face of malpractice insurance rate increases. And some insurance companies reported rate reductions last year.

Still, there’s a feeling among doctors that something is amiss, said Dr. Morris Kugler, chairman of a political doctors group, the Statewide Medical Alliance for the Survival of Healthcare. Kugler praised Callis’ new proposal as a way to take on the issue without another bitter fight.

“The judges are showing they are willing to listen and have a real dialogue,” Kugler said.

Swansea lawyer Judy Cates, president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, said Callis’ plan should help the reputation of a court system that has been in an unfavorable spotlight in recent years. It was less than two years ago that President George W. Bush chose Collinsville as his venue as he called for limits in medical malpractice awards.

“It’s a response to what’s been going on,” Cates said. “The purpose of them is to help people understand our court system, and that’s a good thing.”

The judges don’t plan to rehash the bitter debate again and would be constrained ethically about what they could say, Callis and others said. But they said they did hope for reasoned discussion.

“We want people to feel that they can express their thoughts, even their outrage to the court, without doing it in the middle of litigation or a heated election,” Hylla said. “This is outreach. We want to open up communication channels.”