Malpractice Lawyers Deserve More Credit

Article excerpt

Dabbling in dirty politics, George W. Bush has been turning malpractice lawyers into dirty words. They file "junk lawsuits, they file "frivolous lawsuits," they're greedy and, for sure, they are driving doctors out of business.

True to political form, President Bush is a divider, not a uniter. He pits doctors against lawyers, medicine against the law. In the president's larger world of fantasy where it's good guys like him taking on bad guys, casting malpractice lawyers as the nasties comes naturally.

But it doesn't come factually. His own department of Health and Human Services reports an 8.9 percent decline last year in payouts for malpractice claims. Last month The New York Times reported: "For all the worry over higher medical expenses, legal costs do not seem to be at the root of the recent increase in malpractice insurance premiums.... The more important factors appear to be the declining investment earnings of insurance companies and the changing nature of competition in the industry."

After insurance companies lost their shirts on Wall Street, they lost their scruples. "When the reserves of insurers shriveled, companies began to double and triple the costs for doctors," the Times reported. Instead of pressing Congress to limit how much doctors and hospitals owe their victimized patients, why isn't President Bush calling for caps on what insurance companies can charge?

In demonizing lawyers, the president is adopting the shifty tactic of Ronald Reagan when he attacked poor people by telling stories about a welfare queen who drove around in a Cadillac. The living and breathing queen, and her fabled El Dorado, were never found. But welfare recipients were smeared and President Reagan preened as a fighter of corruption. Without doubt, some were scammers. No doubt, too, a few lawyers have been less than saintly in the pursuit of an easy dollar.

That's far from the reality, though, in which most malpractice lawyers work. Living by their wits, they are the ultimate risk-takers. Contingency fees, which are usually one-third of awards, come only if they win. The cost of researching a lengthy and complex case, paying experts, taking depositions from witnesses: All this is upfront money, with no assurance it will be recovered by a jury verdict or pretrial settlement. …