Texas resident Connie Spears had a terrible 2010, but her 2013 has not been much better. Three years ago, she went to a local hospital’s emergency room complaining of pain in both legs. When speaking with hospital staff, she informed them of her history of blood clots, but they sent her home. Only a few days afterward, she ended up at a different hospital–having been taken there by ambulance–where doctors found a clot and were forced to amputate both of her legs above the knee in order to save her life.
After three years of struggling for compensation, Spears finds herself at the mercy of Texas’ tort reform package, which many in that state regard as a victory for doctors and a solution to the perceived problem of so-called frivolous lawsuits. In 2003, legislators passed a comprehensive set of measures that includes a cap on noneconomic damages, a “willful and wanton” standard for medical negligence, and tighter standards on plaintiffs’ expert witnesses. In other words, the highest award a victim can receive for damages like pain and suffering is $250,000 and the doctor must be found to have intentionally caused harm to a patient during emergency care. Moreover, if the plaintiff cannot provide the court with satisfactory expert reports within about four months (120 days), they must pay the legal fees of the defendants.
Spears claims that these strict new laws have made finding an attorney difficult, as many thought her case might not meet these tough new standards for medical negligence. Her current lawyer told The New York Times, “Her life has basically been ruined by all of this, and there was just no way I could turn her down.” But when her legal team misidentified the defendants in the case and was unable to fix the error quickly enough, Spears must now pay several thousand dollars to cover her opponents’ legal fees. Though the hospital has chosen not to collect these funds from Spears out of sympathy for her, she claims other defendants have done so.
Though the purpose of this legislation was to entice doctors to practice in Texas to meet its booming population, the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman writes that when Texas’ tort reform package went into effect, the state was already at a four-year low regarding medical malpractice lawsuits and payouts: “There were other reports showing that many malpractice claims resulted in no compensation paid, that malpractice litigation wasn’t a significant factor in overall health care costs, and that malpractice claims and awards had little to do with the rise in medical malpractice insurance rates.”
Though Texas lawmakers may have had the best interests of their constituents at heart, the plain fact is that these tort reform measures have made it much more difficult for private citizens to access the courts, even when they are the victims of terrible medical negligence through no fault of their own.