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Is Medical Malpractice Legislation Protecting Physicians or Patients?



Want to start an argument between a doctor and a lawyer? Say two words to them: Medical malpractice legislation. Also known as tort reform, it's a hotly contested topic, not only in the courts, but also in the legislative arena.

Medical Malpractice Basics

Medical malpractice law is a branch of the area of law known as "personal injury law." And personal injury law, in turn, is a branch of the area of law known as "torts law." Briefly:

  • A tort is a wrongful act that injures someone else. If the injured party (known as the "plaintiff") can prove that another person or entity (known as the "defendant") committed the tort, then the plaintiff is entitled to compensation for his or her injuries.
  • Personal injury law, as the name implies, deals with torts that injure the body, as opposed to torts that injure property. Personal injury claims typically arise out of auto accidents, dog bites, and slip and fall accidents.
  • Medical malpractice is the branch of personal injury law that deals with patients who have been injured by a doctor, nurse, hospital or other medical provider. To win a lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove the defendant deviated from the standard of care, or commonly accepted way of treating similar patients suffering similar symptoms or health conditions.

State to State Variations in Medical Malpractice Law

Medical malpractice cases - like most types of personal injury lawsuits - are typically tried in state courts and decided using state laws as well as common law. Because these cases fall under the jurisdiction of the state, two people with identical medical malpractice cases in different states might have very different outcomes. For example:

  • The statute of limitations, or time limit to file a medical malpractice lawsuit, can vary.
  • There may be a cap on how much the injured party can receive in damages, or compensation, if the case is successful, and these caps are different from state to state.
  • A state may place restrictions on the types of expert witnesses the plaintiff and defendant can use to prove their case.
  • There may be different standards used to determine if a healthcare provider was negligent in caring for a patient.

Tort Reform: Helping or Hurting?

"Tort reform" is a hotly contested issue in many states across the country. Proponents of tort reform want to change state tort laws - including those that govern medical malpractice lawsuits - to make it more difficult for injured parties to collect money from the person or entity responsible for their injuries.

Tort reform advocates want shorter statutes of limitations to bring cases, caps on damages, restrictions on expert witnesses and tighter standards on negligence.  Additinoally, it is usually favored by those who would benefit from more restrictions on medical malpractice awards. This would include doctors, hospitals and medical malpractice insurance companies.

Tort reform is typically opposed by those who would be hurt by restrictions making it more difficult for a plaintiff to win a medical malpractice lawsuit. This would include individual consumers and consumer rights' organizations as well as personal injury lawyers.

The issue is more complicated, of course. A doctor who treats high-risk patients might have difficulty obtaining affordable medical malpractice insurance, leading the doctor to turn away the highest-risk patients. Tort reform could make it easier for him to obtain insurance, meaning he can provide medical treatment to patients for whom care would previously have been denied.

Visit LawyerLocator for more information on medical malpractice and personal injury law, or to locate a medical malpractice attorney.