For the first time, a New Hampshire jury has disregarded a medical malpractice screening panel’s unanimous finding of no fault, ruling in favor of the plaintiff against a cardiologist sued for thrice failing to diagnose a lesion on his 36-year-old patient’s heart. The patient died of heart disease shortly after his last visit to the cardiologist, and an autopsy showed that the lesion had likely been there for months prior to his seeing the cardiologist. The patient’s estate sued the cardiologist, alleging the proper tests were never performed. New Hampshire law has required all medical liability claims to first be vetted by a medical malpractice screening panel since 2005. At least 16 states have similar laws requiring medical liability lawsuits to first be screened by a malpractice panel.
When New Hampshire instituted medical liability lawsuit screening panels, lawmakers praised the new system as an effective way to reduce the number of frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits in the state’s overburdened court system, deflate the overall costs associated with malpractice trials and contain the rising cost of medical professional liability insurance in the state. Critics of the malpractice screening panel argue that the process only increases the costs and overall time required for litigation of medical injuries. They say that the screening panel process also places significant administrative burdens and costs on state court systems.
Comprised of a retired judge, a lawyer and a healthcare professional, the three-person panel reviews all medical malpractice lawsuits prior to their going to trial, making a judgment as to the merit of the case. The judgment is non-binding, and plaintiffs can still seek a trial independent of the panel’s finding, but the process is intended to promote out-of-court settlements. Unanimous panel findings, as in the case of the deceased 36-year-old, are presented to the jury if the lawsuit proceeds to trial. Until now, the jury has always sided with the panel’s unanimous decisions.
The New Hampshire jury awarded the 36-year-old plaintiff’s estate $1.5 million.