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Bush Takes Aim at Tort Reform, a Moving Target

President will launch his push to limit civil suit costs in a county labeled a magnet for litigation. But lawyers say statistics there tell another story.

January 05, 2005|Warren Vieth | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Business groups have ranked it the nation's No. 1 "judicial hellhole," where the threat of malpractice cases has caused many physicians to flee. President Bush has chosen it as the place to launch his second-term campaign to restrain the cost of civil litigation.

Yet in Madison County, Ill., where Bush will appear today to push for congressional passage of a $250,000 cap on jury awards for pain and suffering, there are signs the medical malpractice crisis may be easing. And before the president leaves town, Kim Cruse would like to tell him about her mother.

Four years ago, 57-year-old Barbara Willis died of complications from back surgery at a Madison County hospital. Cruse sued the hospital and several doctors, alleging, among other things, that her mother was left unattended for hours. The defendants settled out of court, for substantially more than $250,000.

Cruse said that she voted for Bush in November, and that she thought he was doing a good job as president. But she fears, she said, that he has been misinformed by business backers about medical litigation, and she has joined with other plaintiffs to request a meeting with the president to argue against the cap on noneconomic damages in malpractice cases.

"My mother was my best friend. We did everything together. The whole reason she was getting the surgery done was so she could enjoy her grandchildren," Cruse said.

"Now she's not enjoying anything. No amount of money could have fixed the situation, but I don't want somebody telling me how much my mother is worth."

Sentiments like that underscore the tricky politics of tort reform, which Bush has elevated to the top of his list of second-term legislative priorities, along with an overhaul of Social Security and simplification of the U.S. tax code. Although Republican gains in the Senate appear to have improved the prospects of passage -- they now hold 55 of the chamber's 100 seats -- there is still considerable opposition to legislation that would limit the legal and financial liability of medical practitioners and other business interests.

Bush is pushing tort reform on three fronts: Besides trying to cap damages in medical malpractice cases, he wants Congress to restrict the scope of class-action lawsuits and to take steps to curtail asbestos-related litigation. The White House contends that excessive damage awards have become an onerous burden for business and a drag on the U.S. economy.

Madison and adjacent St. Clair County, Ill., both of which lie across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, have achieved notoriety in all three categories. The American Tort Reform Assn., a business-backed group, ranked them first and second place, respectively, on its list of the worst civil court systems in the country last year. (Los Angeles came in ninth.)

Tort reform advocates said elected judges in both counties were beholden to trial attorneys who contributed to their campaigns, and had turned their courts into magnets for litigation from around the country. They cited large numbers of class-action, asbestos and malpractice lawsuits filed in both venues.

Bush will call attention to malpractice awards in a speech today in Collinsville, a Madison County community where he will meet with doctors and patients who back his push for damage caps.

White House officials said it would be the first in a series of efforts to prod the new Congress to act on the issue. The House has voted several times to cap damages for pain and suffering in malpractice cases, but the legislation has stalled in the Senate, where Republicans lack the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters by Democrats.

"This is one of his top issues," said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. "The president talked about medical liability in nearly every speech he gave during the course of the campaign.... It's not only part of his healthcare reform plan, but his economic reform as well."

Duffy said the White House had decided to address the issue in Madison County because of its history of "egregious" jury awards and evidence that the high cost of medical malpractice insurance was causing doctors to leave the region. On Friday, Bush will travel to Michigan to talk about asbestos litigation.

According to tort reform advocates, 161 physicians have left their practices in Madison and St. Clair counties over the last two years, partly because the cost of medical malpractice insurance has risen much higher there than in areas where the threat of large jury awards is not as great.

"The cost of frivolous lawsuits, in some cases, make it prohibitively expensive for a small business to stay in business or for a doctor to practice medicine," Bush told participants in a White House economic forum last month. "These lawsuits are driving really fine, competent people out of the practice of medicine."

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