As a major goal of both medical industry lobbyists and conservative politicians, medical malpractice tort reform threatens to change the landscape of personal injury civil law, denying the victims of medical malpractice the ability to hold medical providers responsible for their mistakes and receive fair compensation for their injuries.
Proponents have spent years trying to convince anyone who'll listen that medical malpractice tort reform is the cure for what ails the American health care system—and they've been largely successful. More than half of the states in the U.S., including Tennessee, have passed some form of tort reform measure. It’s important for Americans to understand how this tort reform could potentially affect medical malpractice personal injury cases.
The Case For and Against Tort Reform
The driving force behind tort reform is the claim that “frivolous” medical malpractice lawsuits and hefty settlements make malpractice insurance too expensive for medical providers and drive up the cost of care. Tort reform proponents allege that:
- The increased costs are passed on to the patient, either in the form of more expensive medical treatments or higher health insurance premiums.
- If malpractice lawsuits were restricted, medical care would suddenly become more affordable.
Supporters of tort reform also claim that the high cost of malpractice insurance has led to doctors practicing “defensive medicine”—ordering additional tests and treatments that may not be strictly necessary, effectively “covering their bases” in the event of a lawsuit.
Opponents of medical malpractice tort reform argue that the savings gained by tort reform wouldn't even scratch the surface of health care spending in the United States and would deny worthy medical malpractice victims the justice and compensation they deserve.
How Would Tort Reform Affect Victims of Medical Malpractice?
Non-economic and punitive damages are the primary targets for those who support tort reform. As the name suggests, non-economic damages are awarded for losses that have no direct monetary value such as pain and suffering, mental anguish, and disfigurement, while punitive damages are levied against the defendant (and paid to the plaintiff) as punishment for particularly egregious conduct.
Capping non-economic and punitive damages at arbitrary amounts may save medical providers money, but it prevents the victims of medical malpractice from receiving settlements awarded based on the merits of their individual cases.
Tennessee's Medical Malpractice Tort Reform Debacle
The Tennessee legislature has made a number of changes to the state's medical malpractice laws in the last decade, starting with two new statutes that went into effect in 2008. These statutes require plaintiffs to provide the defendant 60 days’ notice before filing a lawsuit, as well as file a "certificate of good faith" along with their lawsuit, stating that the case was reviewed by a qualified expert.
But the state legislature didn't stop there. Signed into law in 2011, the Tennessee Civil Justice Act capped non-economic damages at $750,000 and limited punitive damages to the higher of twice the amount of the economic damages or $500,000.
In 2015, Hamilton County Judge W. Neil overturned the caps on non-economic and punitive damages set forth in the Tennessee Civil Justice Act, ruling them unconstitutional. However, in October 2015, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned Judge Neil's decision, deeming it premature because the jury hadn't awarded damages that exceeded the caps. Ultimately, the case in question was sent back to Hamilton County courts to be deliberated further.
However, Judge Neil's ruling appears to have spooked medical malpractice tort reform advocates, including the Tennessee Medical Association. This agency is now seeking an amendment to the state constitution to lock the Tennessee Civil Justice Act's damage caps in place. If the proposed amendment passes two general assemblies, it could be on the ballot as early as 2018 or 2020.
Do You Need a Medical Malpractice Lawyer?
Seeking justice in malpractice cases can be complex and confusing, but the experienced attorneys with Holton Law Firm can help you navigate Tennessee's legal landscape. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation to discuss your legal options.