CREVE COEUR — Missouri is seeing the benefits of medical lawsuit restrictions passed nearly three years ago, Gov. Matt Blunt said today. But critics say the law is keeping many people, especially the elderly and needy, from getting justice for medical mishaps.
Blunt said that since the liability lawsuit limits took effect in August 2005, lawsuits filed against doctors have dropped sharply. So have the amount of damages awarded, he said.
"The significant and comprehensive reforms we enacted have leveled the playing field in Missouri courtrooms so that doctors and small business owners can go about creating jobs and opportunity without the paralyzing worry about the effects of a frivolous lawsuit or runaway personal injury award," Blunt said at a news conference at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in suburban St. Louis.
But critics said many Missourians are declining to file medical malpractice suits because the lower cap on damages means that even if they win, most of the money will go to attorneys.
"You're lucky if you get $100,000 for losing a leg or being blinded for life," said Ken Vuylsteke, a St. Louis attorney and a member of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys' executive committee. "What the governor trumpets as great success we think is a travesty of justice to the people of Missouri."
Trumpeted as tort reform, the legislation was among the top priorities for Blunt and the Republican-led Legislature when he took office in 2005. Among the law's key provisions is a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, in medical malpractice cases. The previous inflation-adjusted cap was $579,000.
The law also limits punitive damages in all liability cases to $500,000 or five times the actual damages awarded to a plaintiff, whichever is greater.
Blunt said the new law has resulted in lower insurance premiums for health care providers.
Dr. Jeff Thomasson, who spoke at the news conference, said that before the new law, his radiology group's premiums rose 88 percent one year and 94 percent another year. Over the past two years, the premiums declined slightly, Thomasson said. As a result, he believes recruiting and retaining good doctors is easier.
"You have an otherwise great place to live like Missouri, but the word on the street was, 'My goodness, the liability situation is horrible — go to Kansas,'" Thomasson said in describing the situation before the law.
Total claims against Missouri doctors dropped 61 percent in 2006 compared with 2005, Blunt said. General surgeons, emergency room doctors and obstetrician gynecologists have seen claims drop by 70 percent since the law was signed. Figures for 2007 are not yet available.
Blunt said that the average claim settlement cost fell nearly 14 percent in 2006 from the previous year. The governor said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's legal climate rating now ranks Missouri 34th among the 50 states, up from 41st in 2004.
Vuylsteke said the number of cases are declining because the elderly, the poor and parents of young children "can't find lawyers to handle their cases because the lawyers can't afford to represent them." For many lawyers, who must invest substantial costs in expert witnesses and in hours preparing for the trial, the risk simply isn't worth it, he said.
Even if the client wins, the cap is unfair for those who may suffer permanent damage because of mistakes by health care providers, Vuylsteke said.
"Their lives aren't worth $350,000, according to the governor," he said. "All their lives have been devalued under the Missouri retort reform act."