New rules adopted for malpractice cases

By Adam Jadhav
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

People claiming injuries and the doctors they sue now must meet and at least talk of settling any time a medical malpractice case is filed, according to rules adopted Monday by the Madison County court.

The effort is aimed at healing wounds in an arena of law overtaken by an emotional and political debate. Medical malpractice cases that aren’t settled can turn into bitter affairs, and in recent years the issue has spawned battles in the Illinois Legislature.

It was in Madison County that Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2005 signed compromise legislation limiting the amount of money for pain and suffering that any doctor or hospital could be forced to pay in a lawsuit while also reforming the physician insurance industry. The county’s reputation as an epicenter in the national debate over the issue was reinforced that year when President George W. Bush made a speech in Collinsville calling for civil justice reform.

Doctors saw their insurance premiums skyrocket just a few years ago, and dozens of physicians closed shop in the area. Insurance companies readily blamed the aggressive Metro East trial bar.

Many lawyers, however, still contend that the courts were never at fault. Instead, they say, greedy corporations were simply looking for a scapegoat to justify their unfair rate hikes during tough economic times.

Earlier this year, some Madison County judges said they had enough of their courthouse being repeatedly maligned as a “judicial hellhole.” Chief Circuit Judge Ann Callis established a judicial committee to investigate the issue and determine whether any procedural changes could ease the tension between doctors and lawyers.

Judges met with leaders of the Illinois State Medical Society, as well as its insurance company — the largest medical malpractice company in the state. Numerous lawyers also took part in the discussions, though some questioned whether judges were pandering to political forces.

The results were the new rules announced Monday. In addition to mandatory mediation, a panel of judges will be required to meet monthly to review pending medical malpractice cases. Also, plaintiffs will have the opportunity to amend lawsuits to comply with a state law requiring a certificate of merit — a report that the case has been reviewed by a physician before filing.

Whether the rules will have much of an effect remains to be seen. Both sides of the medical malpractice debate — trial lawyers and doctors — were cautious in their comments.

Rex Carr, a veteran lawyer from East St. Louis who has handled dozens of medical malpractice cases, said the rule will be helpful “if the spirit of the rule is adhered to, if a good-faith effort is made by both parties to settle.” He noted that the rules will not force him to settle, and won’t have an impact on defendants who deny responsibility.

On the other side of the debate, Dr. Rodney Osborn, president of the state medical society, said his organization was still reviewing the new rules, but he thanked Callis and the other judges “for including doctors in the discussions on how to improve the expensive and lengthy medical litigation process in Madison County.”
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