Bush renews call for tort reform

President’s criticism of suits is rejected by lawyers association

By Ameet Sachdev
Tribune staff reporter

President Bush again is taking jabs at medical malpractice lawyers and calling for nationwide tort reform.

“I’m worried about frivolous lawsuits that are running up the cost of health care,” the president said on a visit to Caterpillar Inc.’s Peoria headquarters last week, revisiting an issue that has been near the top of his agenda since he entered office. ” . . . And when somebody gets sued all the time, they practice more medicine than is necessary and it runs up your cost.”

The line prompted an immediate response critical of Bush’s statement from a national advocacy and lobbying group for trial lawyers.

“Bush is misleading the American public all to make the case for further padding the profits of his insurance industry friends,” said Jon Haber, chief executive of the American Association for Justice, formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. “Restricting the rights of victims to hold wrongdoers accountable will do nothing to lower health care costs and in turn, eliminate a key incentive for hospitals and health-care providers to decrease the 100,000 deaths that occur each year from preventable medical errors.”

The hostile rhetoric is part of a renewed debate on changes to the legal system, “tort reform” in political lingo. After letting the issue simmer last year, the president is again leading the discussion, framing it as a barrier to economic growth.

A day after he came to Illinois, Bush said in New York that “excessive lawsuits will make it hard for America to remain the economic leader that we want to be.” In his State of the Union address last month, Bush called on Congress to pass legislation this year that would limit damage awards in medical malpractice cases.

But unlike the past six years, Bush’s legal agenda is likely to be ignored. Congress is under the control of Democrats, who have generally not supported efforts to scale back the types of lawsuits people can file and how much they can recover. Many find tort reform legislation overly pro-business and against the interests of consumers. In addition, trial lawyers are among the Democrats’ biggest financial supporters.

Any efforts to further reform the litigation system will face formidable opposition from Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Chairman Leahy is focused on finding solutions that promote consumer safety and protections rather than shielding big corporations from accountability,” said Tracy Schmaler, a spokesperson. “Legislating away Americans’ legal rights is one-sided, counterproductive and wrong.”

Some of the most powerful business lobbyists are resigned to fighting an uphill battle. Dr. Cecil Wilson, chairman of the American Medical Association’s board of trustees, said the chances of passing medical liability reform in the next two years are miniscule.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration has kept up its attack. Part of the Republican strategy, supporters say, is to exert influence at the state level and on courtrooms across the country. Bush is also trying to shape the debate for the 2008 election. Democrat John Edwards, who has announced his entry into the presidential election, was a trial lawyer before entering politics.

“I’m always happy when [the president] says something about [tort reform] because it does focus attention on it,” said Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, which supports tort-reform efforts. “The more attention he focuses on it the better.”

Under Republican control, Congress adopted a few of the measures the White House has proposed to limit civil suits, most notably one in 2005 that sharply curtailed the ability of people to file class-action suits against companies.

But tort-reform proponents have had more success at the state level. Caps on what juries can award in medical malpractice cases, for instance, have been approved in 30 states, half of those since 1999, including Illinois, according to the AMA. In 2005 Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a medical malpractice reform law that limited awards for pain and suffering to $500,000 for individual physicians and $1 million for hospitals.

But federal efforts the last two years to limit malpractice awards have not received much support.

“Proposals such as arbitrary caps on medical malpractice claims do little to protect true victims while limiting Americans’ legal rights and access to justice,” said Schmaler, Leahy’s spokesperson.

In addition to medical malpractice, the president is now taking aim at a law that he signed in 2002: the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which imposed stricter corporate governance measures after high-profile financial scandals shook investor and public confidence. In his remarks in New York last week before a receptive audience of business leaders, Bush linked overregulation and excessive lawsuits as two of the biggest burdens the economy faces.

He stopped short of calling for any legislative changes to Sarbanes-Oxley, but he backed efforts by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the secretary of the treasury to reduce the regulatory burden that some of the provisions have placed on business. He specifically referred to Section 404 of the act, which requires an auditor to assess the internal controls at a firm. Critics have complained that compliance with the measure is too costly for some businesses.

“There are problems with Sarbanes-Oxley that the business community is struggling with uniformly,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Chicago-based Mesirow Financial. “But Congress has to balance the needs of the public to have accountability and not throwing out the baby with the bath water.”
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