Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

THE DEBATE OVER MALPRACTICE Revenge ... or Justice? Medical Lawsuits at Issue

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

THE DEBATE OVER MALPRACTICE Revenge ... or Justice? Medical Lawsuits at Issue

Article excerpt

Albert Yancey was with his girlfriend that night, when she was

admitted to University Medical Center, nine months pregnant with

their son.

Yancey watched as a nurse put medicine in Cynthia Johnson's IV.

Then he saw her complain of a headache and vomit blood.

Yancey said he promised Johnson everything would be all right

as they wheeled her to the delivery room.

That night, Johnson gave birth to a son, Cynsean.

But she died a few hours later, early on the morning of Nov. 2,

1994.

Yancey said he couldn't find out exactly how she died. He asked

three or four members of the medical staff -- he can't remember

exactly how many or who -- but no one would tell him what went

wrong, he said.

But he suspected somebody screwed up and killed her. He wanted

retribution and justice, he said, and could think of only one

way to get either.

He got a lawyer.

"It's not about the money," Yancey said, referring to his

pending lawsuit, which is to come to trial in July.

"If I can just hurt somebody."

MALPRACTICE DEBATE

Yancey's reaction is a common one.

Each year thousands of people call Jacksonville attorneys,

saying they or a loved one have been victims of medical

malpractice.

The number and scope of medical malpractice lawsuits is the

center of an enduring debate in Florida.

It's a debate that hit a crescendo in 1988, when doctors were

screaming about the soaring cost of medical malpractice

insurance, and the Florida Legislature responded by limiting

how much money victims can win from a lawsuit.

And it's a debate continuing now, in the Legislature's current

session.

Among the bills being haggled by legislators are proposals by

the state's trial lawyers to make it easier to file medical

malpractice suits, and moves by health care providers to make it

harder.

To people close to the issue, nothing is more important.

Rod Brown of Orange Park said he tried, and failed, to get

attorneys to handle his claim that his mother died in 1995

because of medical malpractice.

Brown, 42, makes daily calls to members of the Duval County

Legislative Delegation, demanding a change in medical

malpractice laws.

"It's not hard to sue a doctor," he said. "It's impossible."

PLAINTIFFS' ARGUMENT

People who sue health care providers face obstacles that do not

apply to people who sue auto makers, restaurant workers, tobacco

producers or others.

The statute of limitations for filing a medical malpractice

suit is two years. Four years are allowed for other torts.

Medical malpractice lawsuits cannot be filed until a doctor or

other medical expert has reviewed the case and concluded

negligence occurred.

Doctors affiliated with state medical schools, which include

University Medical Center and Gainesville's Shands Hospital, are

granted immunity from lawsuits. Victims must sue the state

instead.

But the state law cited most often by attorneys as unfair

covers non-economic damages.

Victims can receive three types of damages: economic, for loss

of income and medical expenses; non-economic, for pain and

suffering and other intangibles; and punitive, rarely awarded

damages that punish a defendant for malicious action or wanton

disregard.

State law doesn't limit economic damages in medical malpractice

cases. But it puts a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages if a

plaintiff insists on a jury trial and refuses to send the case

to arbitration. …

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