State proposal could revive medical malpractice debate

By Adam Jadhav
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
http://www.stltoday.com

An Illinois House committee hearing this week could bring some life back to the medical malpractice debate that for several years dominated Metro East politics.

Supporters and critics have strong opinions on a bill that would establish a pretrial hearing on the merits of any expert witness in a civil trial. Supporters, in particular, say they plan to go before the House judiciary committee on civil law when it hears the bill today.

Though the bill — numbered HB1896 — would apply to all civil litigation, the debate is likely to cast a spotlight on medical malpractice trials, which routinely involve the use of outside expert witnesses such as doctors evaluating the case of a plaintiff. The issue has been a political flashpoint after high malpractice insurance rates prompted many doctors to leave the Metro East area.

Doctors blame lawyers for filingwhat they see as frivolous lawsuits. Lawyers fault insurers, saying the companies raise rates and then blame the civil justice system.

Many doctors still have qualms about the issue and particularly criticize the credibility of expert witness testimony, according to the results of a study released Monday by Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a watchdog group that supports the bill. In a mail survey of 176 Illinois physicians, 97 percent said they believe at least some problem exists with the system. And 65 percent said they had personally seen or heard inaccurate or questionable statements by a medical expert witness.

“It’s this junk science that is in the courtroom that encourages more frivolous lawsuits that clog up the system,” said Lance Trover, executive director of the group. “Why not just get a threshold — some common sense requirements — that assure that a judge can keep this out of the courtroom?”

In addition to allowing for a hearing on any expert witness, the bill would also allow the hearing to be appealed before a trial proceeded. Lawyers criticize such measures — backed by tort reform groups — as a way for defendants to boost expenses for plaintiffs and stall a verdict.

East St. Louis plaintiffs attorney, Rex Carr, said that the additional appeal process could delay a case for years. He said any defense attorney can already file a motion that appropriately bars questionable testimony.

“This is just another way to add cost to the bringing of lawsuits. It wouldn’t prevent any lawsuits,” said Carr.”We get experts that are competent because we want to win our cases.”

The medical malpractice issue has cooled in recent years, as the Legislature in 2005 passed a compromise bill, signed by the governor, that limited damages a plaintiff could receive and also made changes to the malpractice insurance industry. That measure now faces a constitutional challenge in court.

Medical malpractice defendants typically win at trial, as was the case in Carr’s verdict and another Madison County verdict earlier this month. Another case, brought by Carr, ended last month in a plaintiff’s verdict that was far short of what he had asked for.