West Virgina County Feels The Pain of Lawyers, Greed

By: Steven Maggi

Across the United States there has been an explosion of litigation. People act as if they have won the lottery whenever their car gets tapped from behind or if a doctor, dentist, employer, or whoever, makes a mistake, big or small. As the number of lawsuits in this country skyrockets, the cost on our system has become outrageous. The price of America’s tort system is now over $200 billion annually, which is over two percent of the gross domestic product. In fact, the cost of tort claims has grown four times faster than the US economy.

According to the Insurance Journal, in the year 2000, the average jury verdict award was over 1 million dollars, or almost 250 percent higher than it was just five years before. In personal negligence cases, the average award exceeds $3 million. Yet, awards to the injured plaintiffs’ amount to only 46% of money spent on tort litigation. The other 54% goes to lawyers and insurance companies.

Nowhere is this legal free spending more rampant than in healthcare. Lawsuits have forced malpractice premiums for MD’s as high as $200,000 a year, and even higher for surgeons. In medical malpractice cases, plaintiffs receive average awards of $1.2 million.

Sometimes, though, there are things more important than money. Like eliminating a County’s health care system. This is what the residents of Putnam County are just learning.

Putnam is a small, rural county of 55,000 residents in West Virginia. Until recently, this county was served almost exclusively by Putnam General Hospital, which is owned by national health care provider Hospital Corporation of America, Inc. (HCA). Yet the hospital is scheduled to shut its doors for good August 29th. In fact, they’ve already stopped admitting parents. Why? There is only one reason … Well, more like hundreds of reasons – the number of predatory lawsuits filed by local lawyers.

What happened you ask? The issue surrounds the strange case of Dr. John King, who allegedly mishandled dozens of surgeries during his six-month stint at Putnam. Clearly, something went wrong here, and no one is arguing for anything less than a full airing of the facts and for any injured parties to be made as whole as possible. But that is not what local lawyers had in mind, and instead came a barrage of lawsuits for billions of dollars! Not millions, but billions!!!

Here’s the bottom line: Whatever happened at Putnam related to Dr. King, whatever role there is for the courts in this circumstance, the litigation has gone too far, because more than 55,000 West Virginians will soon live without nearby doctors, nurses, trauma centers or emergency rooms. This is a triumph for justice?

Specifically, Margaret Lewis, president of parent company HCA’s Capital Division, essentially laid the blame for Putnam’s downfall on what she termed attacks by local trial lawyers who have filed more than 100 King-related lawsuits, demanding billions of dollars in compensation.

Lewis said, “The problem is that lawyers want much more than that. Because they personally keep a third or more of the take, they demand what’s come to be known as ‘jackpot justice.’ That’s tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, when, say, a cool $1 million would more than satisfy the injured party.”

Its human nature to be overwhelmed by a sense of sympathy and compassion, but this too often easily gives way to casually applied awards in the range of $50 or $100 million in damages. Do we ever stop to think just where that money comes from? The defendant and the insurance company (to be sure), but the rest of us as well.

The burden of tort irresponsibility is ultimately borne by the individual through higher prices, reduced wages, or decreased investment returns. Or even more. Just ask the people of Putnam. They are now coping with higher prices, lost jobs, fewer life-saving drugs, and a disappearing hospital.

Corporations and individuals should be held accountable for their actions. However, people and organizations can be ruined by the cost of being sued or by juries doling out millions of dollars. And look what this has gotten us. A society that now has to tell the person, in writing, on their cup of coffee to be careful, that the beverage they are about to enjoy is HOT!

The death of Putnam General should be laid at the feet of the voracious and greedy trial lawyers who huffed and puffed and may have blown an entire health care provider down to the ground. It hasn’t made one person healthier or happier, but it stands as a symbol of litigation gone wild and as a cry for tort reform throughout the nation.

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