Oklahoma physicians demand lawsuit reform

Saturday, January 24th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

When Dr. Carl Hook closed his ear, nose and throat surgical practice last year, it wasn't because he was looking forward to a comfortable retirement.

Hook put away his scalpel after 28 years because he couldn't afford the rising cost of the insurance he must buy to protect him from lawsuits. The cost of his medical malpractice insurance jumped 60 percent last year.

In the Oklahoma legislative session beginning Feb. 2, some lawmakers hope to increase restrictions on civil litigation in hopes of bringing these insurance rates down. The insurance industry says rates are high because of excessive litigation and judgments against doctors.

"I stopped surgery at 57 years of age," Hook said.

"It's sad. You're bitter at first. You're bitter at the insurance companies."

The Norman doctor gave up surgical medicine for a sleep medicine clinic.

Hundreds of Oklahoma doctors would like to see passage of laws that would cap attorneys fees and lower litigation costs, similar to measures approved in Texas.

Opponents, including members of the Oklahoma Trial Lawyer's Association who represent the victims of medical malpractice, say passage would limit the rights of patients who are injured by careless physicians.

"Do we really want to take away the rights of people so doctors can have cheaper malpractice rates?" said attorney Tony Laizure of Tulsa, OTLA's president.

The proposal, supported by Republican leaders in the Oklahoma Legislature, would build on reforms passed last year that placed limits on medical and nursing home liability, including a $300,000 cap on non-economic damages from lawsuits involving pregnancy and emergency care.

Those reforms were endorsed by the OTLA.

"We made some improvements last year. But we didn't make the system fair," said Dr. Jack Beller, an orthopedic surgeon and president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association who pays more than $40,000 a year in malpractice insurance.

Beller and others have said a pair of recent judgments in unrelated obstetrics cases, totaling $3 million and $4 million, respectively, are examples of why malpractice insurance rates are going up.

"Oklahoma has been known as a state that has allowed a system of jackpot justice," said House Minority Leader Todd Hiett of Kellyville.

Reforms would preserve Oklahomans' access to health care and promote economic development by attracting industries with good jobs, he said.

"Business and industry leaders simply will not take their companies to states where they feel they are at the risk of suffering the wrath of greedy trial lawyers," Hiett said.

But Laizure said there is no correlation between medical liability awards and higher malpractice premiums and that claims of runaway juries in Oklahoma are unsubstantiated.

"It would appear to me to be a combination of political games and ignorance," Laizure said.

The debate has a different meaning for Diana Stinson of Tulsa. Stinson's daughter, Angella Smith, had her left leg amputated below the knee after doctors botched a medical procedure following a go-cart accident.

Angella, who turned 13 just days after losing her leg, received a six-figure settlement, Stinson said. But the money will never compensate her for her loss.

"It's not enough to replace her leg," Stinson said. She will incur a lifetime of medical costs and procedures, including replacing her prosthetic leg each time she grows.

"It's been an ordeal," Stinson said. "All the emotional torture that she had to go through -- and is still going through.

"It was not high enough. You can't put a price on someone's limb."

Highlights of the reform proposal include:

--A cap on attorney's fees, ranging from 30 percent of the first $250,000 in damages to 10 percent for damages greater than $1.25 million.

--A $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in all civil cases, including medical liability cases.

--Requiring litigants whose lawsuits are ruled frivolous to pay the defendant's attorneys fees.

Medical malpractice lawsuits cost an average of about $17 million a year in Oklahoma between 1990 and 1999, Beller said. The figure had doubled to $34 million by 2002, including more than $5 million in prejudgement interest.

Costs for 2003 are expected to be around $50 million, Beller said.

The average settlement costs of malpractice cases in 2002 was $350,000 -- double what it was five years earlier.

In November, Physicians Liability Insurance Company, Oklahoma's largest provider of medical malpractice insurance, won permission to sharply increase rates to generate $41 million in additional premiums.

The increase, spread over three years, boosted rates by 39.5 percent on Jan. 1. Increases of 15 percent and 14 percent will go into effect in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

Ever increasing costs will likely force other physicians to either leave the state or abandon their practices, Hook said.

"It just financially impossible to continue when you're paying that type of malpractice insurance," Hook said. "Access to health care is really going to be an issue."