Justice in peril 

Chris Wilson makes the case against tort reform

On Nov. 26, 1996, Mary Wilson and her husband Don walked into Candler Hospital in Savannah to have a baby. Mary Wilson was 39 years old, and by virtue of her age, considered a high-risk pregnancy.

Up to that point, everything about the child she had been carrying for the previous nine months had been normal. Two years earlier, Wilson had delivered a 9-pound, 3-ounce boy, Justin, by Caesarean section. She was forced to have the operation because the baby's head was too large for a vaginal birth.

An ultrasound indicated that the baby in her belly, Christopher, would also be a large child, more than 8 pounds. Because of the weakness a C-section causes in the uterine wall, doctors often recommend subsequent children also be delivered by C-section to decrease the likelihood of rupturing the uterus. Wilson's obstetrician, though, told her they would try natural childbirth. He claimed it was for insurance purposes and better for the baby. She agreed.

At 7:32 a.m., Wilson's doctor gave her a drug to start contractions and roughly an hour-and-a-half later he broke her water.

As early as 12:43 p.m., a monitor indicated Chris' heart wasn't working properly. By 2:30 p.m., the fetal heart monitor clearly showed that Chris was in distress.

But Wilson's doctor didn't deviate from his plan. Between 2 and 2:43 p.m., he tried to deliver the child three times by using a vacuum extractor. He failed.

Around 3 p.m., Chris' fetal heart rate showed a sinusoidal pattern. It meant he was hemorrhaging.

At roughly the same time, Mary Wilson began complaining of a sharp pain in the left side of her abdomen. Her doctor ordered a C-section at 3:19 p.m. and scheduled it for 3:45 p.m. Normally, two incisions are necessary to deliver a baby by Caesarean, one through the skin and fatty tissue, the other through the uterus. In Wilson's case, it took but one cut. Chris had kicked through his mother's uterus. That was the pain she had felt an hour earlier.

Mary Wilson's doctor delivered Chris at 4:28 p.m., more than an hour after he scheduled the procedure. The standard is 30 minutes -- decision to incision. Chris weighed 9 pounds and 3 ounces.

It was immediately clear that something was wrong with him. Large amounts of thick meconium -- the stool-like waste the baby generates inside the womb -- were found below his vocal cords. He had inhaled it gasping for air inside his mother. Chris was diagnosed with symptoms similar to what adult stroke victims experience, because blood had not been flowing to his brain normally. He was rigid and having seizures. He was suffering from cerebral palsy.

Chris' birth signaled both a beginning and an end for Don and Mary Wilson. During the hours that he struggled for air inside his mother, all of their pre-natal imaginings of the scenes of his life changed, became foreign. In their place the Wilsons were left with the start of a puzzle, the job of figuring out what had happened to their child.

If they were, in some strange sense, lucky, there would be someone to hold responsible. There would be some way to pursue what passes for justice.

Chris Wilson makes a powerful argument against the kind of tort reform being discussed under the Gold Dome. Non-economic damages, so-called pain and suffering, would be limited by proposed legislation to $250,000 in an effort to stave off spiraling malpractice insurance premiums. The Bush administration is touting a similar cap at the national level.

In the Georgia General Assembly, Sen. Tom Price, R-Roswell, is the point man for tort reform. He's also a doctor, and that gives him extra clout when he argues the issue.

But Price targets much more than medical malpractice cases, the sole arena on which national legislation is expected to concentrate. Price's bill is expected to attempt to extend reforms to all civil suits -- sort of like chopping off your hand to stop your thumb from bleeding. Backers of the proposal lack evidence to support such drastic action.

That hasn't stopped the No. 1 mover behind the bill -- the Georgia Chamber of Commerce -- from making it their top priority. And the Chamber usually gets what the Chamber wants.

In this case, it shouldn't. The facts aren't there. Chamber lobbyists claim that Georgia might some day be faced with a flood of gigantic jury awards, and that will run businesses off just as they ran them off in Mississippi and Alabama.

Of course, there's no direct link between litigation and those states' sagging economies. Moreover, Georgia isn't Mississippi or Alabama. Neither state has a comparable metropolitan area, airport or highway system.

To set a non-economic cap in all tort cases is an opportunity for giant corporations to forever insulate themselves against their own negligence and the harm they cause a much less powerful citizen.

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