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Insurance Companies, Special-Interest Money Defeat Patient Protection Initiative in California

Photo of Eric Gerard

Lost in the national political dialogue following last November's elections was a ballot referendum in California that sought to protect patients from poor medical care. The referendum, which sought to roll back the tide of "tort reform" demagoguery in state houses across the country, was buried under an avalanche of seven- and eight-figure campaign contributions from special interest groups and corporate backers intent on preserving their bottom lines at the expense of public health.

Recent studies document that medical malpractice is the third-leading cause of death in America today, behind only heart disease and cancer. Yet for years, conservative politicians and their corporate backers have pedaled the myth that "tort reform" - the imposition of radical damages caps that deprive juries of their role enshrined in the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - is needed to stop spiraling health care costs and keep doctors from moving elsewhere. In places like California and Texas, that myth has prevailed, leaving patients unprotected and for-profit hospital groups free to cut corners with impunity. See Marshall Allen, How Many Die From Medical Mistakes in U.S. Hospitals?, ProPublica (Sep. 19, 2013, 9:03 a.m.), http://www.propublica.org/article/how-many-die-from-medical-mistakes-in-us-hospitals.

By the evidence, however, the false promises of "tort reform" have been proven just that: false. Health care costs have continued to escalate unabated in those states where caps have been imposed, and doctors have neither poured into "tort reform" states nor fled those where the determination of damages has been left where the Founding Fathers intended - with the jury.

In Texas, where corporate-backed special interest groups upended the historical tradition of leaving damages awards to the jury in medical malpractice cases, the cost of healthcare has actually gone up faster than the national average, while the increase in the number of doctors is no better than in states like New York that have retained the Framers' view of the role of the jury. The only discernible effect of the radical "tort reform" movement in Texas has been a severe decline in patients filing suit against negligent health care companies, as the attorneys who represent them on contingency can no longer afford to front the costs that such legal action entails. This has provided a windfall for insurance companies and corporate hospital systems, but malpractice victims are left without viable recourse to the courts. See John Nova Lomax, Is It Time to Reform Tort Reform? Houstonia (Sep. 30, 2014, 11:59 p.m.), http://www.houstoniamag.com/news-and-profiles/politics/articles/justice-undone-torn-reform-gone-too-far-october-2014.

Consumer groups in California appeared to have caught on to the real purpose of the "tort reform" movement - protecting corporate profits - when they launched an initiative called Proposition 46 last year. The measure proposed lifting certain limits on medical malpractice damages, requiring doctors be tested for drugs and alcohol use, and mandating reporting to the California Medical Board of physicians suspected of drug or alcohol impairment or medical negligence. Soon, however, big insurance companies and medical provider corporations mobilized to defeat Proposition 46, deluging the debate with $58.6 million in special-interest money; the less than $11 million that consumer groups and public interest lawyers were able to put together to promote the measure proved no match. Malpractice victims in California, like in Texas, continue to be arbitrarily deprived of their right to have a jury determine their damages as they would in nearly all other kinds of cases. See Melanie Mason, In Malpractice Initiative Battle, Opponents Heavily Outspent Backers, Los Angeles Times (Feb. 2, 1015, 6:35 p.m.), http://www.latimes.com/local/political/la-me-pc-prop-46-spending-20150202-story.html.

The lawyers of Abraham Watkins have been fighting for over 65 years to protect victims of all kinds of negligence, including medical malpractice, and get them the help that they deserve. While the Texas "tort reform" movement has made this battle far more difficult in recent years, the firm stands by injured patients seeking justice through our court system. If you or someone you know has been harmed by negligent medical care, contact an attorney at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-396-3964 or toll free at 1-800-594-4884.

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