Among those much mentioned as a possible running mate for presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry is second-term Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (Adam Nagourney, “Kerry seeks running mate in 8 weeks”, New York Times/Contra Costa Times, Apr. 4; a Vilsack fan site; David Hogberg, “Vilsack for Veep?”, National Review Online, Feb. 10). Back home in Iowa, liability reform has been a contentious issue in the legislature this year, and although caps on pain and suffering in medical malpractice suits have passed both houses of the legislature, they are considered nearly certain to face a veto when they reach Vilsack’s desk. This does not come as the most total surprise in the world since Gov. Vilsack is a former president of the state’s trial lawyers association. (Tanya Albert, “Iowa governor might not sign tort reform bill”, American Medical News (AMA), May 3)(via MedRants). Another Midwestern Democratic Governor who has been mentioned as a potential running mate for Kerry is Kansas’s Kathleen Sebelius (Mark Z. Barabak, “Edwards Isn’t a Cinch for the No. 2 Slot”, Los Angeles Times, Mar. 3). In one of those coincidences that one encounters so seldom in novels and so often in real life, Sebelius also headed her state’s trial lawyer association, in this case as executive director (see May 5, 2003). See also “Veeps ATLA could love”, Jul. 7-9, 2000.
“Dr. Eileen Murphy has been delivering babies for 18 years, including Governor [Rod] Blagojevich’s daughter, Anne. But on April 30 she’ll see her last patient. She just can’t afford to do it anymore. … The problem’s not her $170,000 a year salary. It’s her insurance premium which jumped to $138,000 this year. Without insurance she can’t get hospital privileges. ‘If anything goes wrong, even if it’s a possible complication, a possible natural outcome, you can almost guarantee that you are going to be sued,’ Murphy said.” (“Doctors Protest Malpractice Rates”, CBS 2 Chicago, Mar. 24). Murphy plans to become a junior high school teacher instead, according to news reports. “I am going on strike for tort reform,” she wrote in a letter to her patients. More: Spoons Experience, Capitol Grilling bulletin board. Even more: Chicago Tribune on state’s crisis (“The doctors are leaving”, Apr. 18) (editorial); Maureen Martin, Heartland Institute, Mar. 26; Patrick J. Powers, “Doctor laments loss of friends to other states”, Belleville News-Democrat, Jan. 14.
The Hartford Courant on Apr. 4 (reg) ran a guest commentary by an attorney named Henry Kopel (“My Colleagues Are Wrecking Health Care”) who is married to an obstetrician/gynecologist and who begins his column: “I am an attorney, and I am ashamed of what my profession is doing to health care in America.” (reprinted: Connecticut College of Emergency Physicians). And here are a couple more medical-liability sites we haven’t previously noted: Doctors for Medical Liability Reform (various physician specialty groups), Protect Access to Care & Treatment (American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons).
Tim Hulsey (Apr. 17) has an update on HB 751, the bill that has passed the Virginia legislature (see Mar. 19) which would render void and unenforceable “partnership contracts” and “other arrangements” between persons of the same sex, perhaps extending even to powers of attorney and other conventional legal devices. It seems Democratic Gov. Mark Warner has taken exception to the most objectionable language in the bill, but has not actually vetoed it. Update Apr. 23: legislature enacts original bill into law despite governor’s objections. Yet more: May 12, May 31.
Amid worldwide publicity, the commissioners of rural Rhea County, Tennessee, quickly rescinded their call for legislation allowing the county to prosecute gays and lesbians for “crimes against nature”; Commissioner J.C. Fugate had asked the county attorney to find a way to “keep them out of here.” (“Rhea County Commission Rescinds Gay Ban”, The Chattanoogan, Mar. 18; “Tennessee county reverses ban on gays”, Ellen Barry, “County Rescinds Vote to Ban Gay Residents”, L.A. Times, Mar. 18; AP/San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 19). By contrast, there’s been much less attention paid to a proposed statute nearing enactment in supposedly civilized Virginia which might serve almost as effectively in sending a “don’t live here” message to gays.
We’ve posted four more entries from our alarmingly backed-up pipeline of reader letters, on our letters page. Among topics this time: the oddly divergent views of Wisconsin’s governor on the protection of lawful activities, with special reference to cheeseburger-selling and helmetless cycling; the recently announced class action settlement in Lamb v. Wells Fargo; complaints that some Texas jury pools are now “tainted” against lawsuits; and U-Haul’s role as bystander in the Ford Explorer litigation frenzy.
Four years ago (Feb. 16, 2000) we noted that the state of Connecticut had chosen three politically connected law firms to handle the state’s role in the multistate tobacco litigation, a bit of business that yielded a very handsome $65 million in fees. (Other firms that wanted to be considered for the work were cut out.) The three firms included two linked to Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and one, Carmody & Torrance of Waterbury, whose managing partner, James Robertson, was personal counsel to Republican Gov. John Rowland.
Now the firm of Carmody & Torrance has turned up amid the ethical storm swirling around Gov. Rowland, who may face impeachment over various personal financial irregularities. After Rowland nominated Robertson for a Superior Court judgeship, it developed that the Carmody firm had not only performed extensive free services for Rowland but had also agreed to defer payment of some $100,000 worth of paid services. In recent weeks the Connecticut press has had a lot to say about the (relatively small) amounts of conventional legal work that the state government has awarded to Carmody & Torrance in recent years, but (unless we’ve missed something) has expressed little curiosity about the selection of the firm for tobacco work, perhaps having swallowed the fiction by which the $65 million fee supposedly did not come at the state’s expense. (“Rowland lawyer says governor owes firm $100,000”, AP/Stamford Advocate, Feb. 13; Tobin A. Coleman, “Judges asked about gifts for Rowland”, Stamford Advocate, Feb. 14; Gregory B. Hladky, “Rowland?s ethics scandal snowballing”, New Haven Register, Feb. 16; “State ethics law loophole doesn?t exist, Plofsky says”, AP/New Haven Register, Feb. 22).
Just in case anyone missed this while we were away: only a few days after filing her class-action lawsuit (Feb. 5, Feb. 8) demanding billions from MTV and other defendants over Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl stunt, Terri Carlin of Knoxville, Tenn. “believes she’s made her point” and is withdrawing the suit. (AP/CNN, Feb. 10; see Blog 702). The attorney who represented Carlin in the action, Wayne A. Ritchie II, would appear to be (per his website) a figure of some dignity in the Knoxville legal community: a former state legislator, he “has served on the Board of Governors of the Knoxville Bar Association and on the Board of Governors and Executive Committee of the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association.” (See also May 28.)
Lack of malpractice insurance is threatening to close the only obstetrics practice in Virginia’s rural and economically depressed Northern Neck region. The closure of Rappahannock General Hospital’s OB unit, which delivers about 250 babies a year, would be “absolutely devastating” to community health, says Albert C. Pollard Jr., who represents the region in the Virginia House of Delegates: “we’d lose a lot of babies if somebody has to drive to Richmond or Newport News.” (Frank Delano, “Crisis presses OB docs”, Fredericksburg (Va.) Free Lance-Star, Dec. 21). “While the governor and Legislature dither over fixing the state’s medical malpractice system, the [Philadelphia] region’s doctors have been voting with their feet,” reports the Philadelphia Daily News. “And they are choosing states that cap damages in malpractice lawsuits — or have other strong reforms to keep malpractice insurance premiums low.” (Michael Hinkelman, “Pa. docs are moving to ‘cap’ states”, Philadelphia Daily News, Dec. 8). Hard numbers on malpractice payouts are often in short supply, but the Missouri state department of insurance has some: it says insurance companies operating in the state “reported paying $135 million to cover 524 claims closed last year”. Self-insured entities, mostly hospitals, “reported paying $6.6 million to close 42 claims, but the actual number of claims and the amount paid may be understated in the data, department spokesman Randy McConnell said. … The average malpractice claim takes more than four years to reach resolution, so the 2002 claims data capture injuries sustained over a period of years. Only 15 of the 566 claims went to a court verdict.” Most of the paid cases involved claims that medical misadventure led to permanent injury or death. (Judith Vandewater, “566 medical malpractice claims were settled in Missouri in 2002”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 4). The American Medical Association rates Missouri a “crisis” state. (M. Steele Brown, “Malpractice ‘crisis’ drives docs from Missouri”, Kansas City Business Journal, May 5).
A reader asks, in the wake of our discussion of Dr. Dean’s 1988 letter, whether other candidates have spoken out on tort reform.
An eagle-eyed reader draws our attention to the June 29, 1988 New York Times, where the then-Lieutenant Governor of Vermont writes to the editor about a Times story on large damages awards in a libel case.
To the Editor:
Randall Bezanson and Gilbert Cranberg detailed a situation that I hope will get far worse. As a physician, I have been frustrated for years by the reluctance of state legislatures and the United States Congress to deal with liability problems of all kinds.
I have long maintained that until the legal profession and the news media are also afflicted with the increasingly severe consequences of a tort system that benefits few people outside the legal profession, there will be no return to a fair and reasonable system of justice.
The trends toward lawyers suing one another for malpractice and toward outrageous-size punitive damages in libel cases give me hope that the crisis in our tort system may finally come to the attention of those who can make this a public issue and improve the situation for all of us who require liability insurance to do business.
HOWARD DEAN, M.D.
Montpelier, Vt., June 17, 1988
The events of the past fifteen years should make Dr. Dean an even more enthusiastic proponent of tort reform; his Dean for America web site is somewhat more neutral.