Justice in peril 

Chris Wilson makes the case against tort reform

Page 2 of 5

But this is ignoring the political element to tort reform. On one side, you have the trial lawyers. Traditionally, they dole out big contributions to Democratic candidates. (The Center for Responsive Politics ranked lawyers and law firms first in political charity among all industry groups in 2002. They gave $82 million, 74 percent of which went to Democrats.) On the other side, you've got doctors, insurance companies and big business. They give overwhelmingly to Republicans. (Medical professionals ranked sixth among industry groups, giving $33 million in 2002. Sixty-two percent went to Republicans. The insurance industry ranked seventh with $32 million in contributions, 69 percent of which wound up in GOP pockets.)

Tort reform is the perfect chance to punish your enemies at the same time you reward your friends.

But the problem for trial lawyers and Democrats is that, in the case of medical malpractice, Georgia, like many other states, is experiencing real difficulties. MAG Mutual Insurance Co., the state's largest provider of malpractice coverage, increased its liability rates for radiologists 74 percent between 2000-2002. Premiums for numerous other specialties rose nearly 40 percent.

Many hospitals also have seen their rates skyrocket, and according to a recent survey of more than 2,100 doctors, a small percentage are thinking about leaving the state or planning to stop performing high-risk procedures because of spiraling costs. Ignoring the fact that the survey was performed by the Georgia Board of Physician Workforce, a group whose board chairman is also on the board of the Medical Association of Georgia and MAG Mutual, and the fact that doctors familiar with the tort debate may have tailored their answers to get a desired outcome, there is still enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that the General Assembly should address the problem.

The question is: How?

Right now, each side in the tort debate is arming itself to the teeth with facts, and each side will argue that its version of the truth is, well, the truth. (See table p. 37)

For each side in this debate, the problem with numbers is that the numbers are just that -- numbers. They obscure a larger, more important philosophical dilemma. Caps on non-economic damages and unnecessary legal hurdles affect our very concept of justice and accountability. It diminishes them, and in cases where the only damages are pain and suffering, it threatens to make our legal system a cruel joke for victims.

In the months and years that followed his birth, the Wilsons put together the hows of Chris' retardation. According to court documents and Mary Wilson's recollection of the events, the nurse in their delivery room had been trained to read a fetal heart monitor by watching a pair of videotapes. She was accustomed to working in the hospital's nursery and had only recently been cross-trained to help -- help -- perform deliveries, not fly solo with a doctor. Because she couldn't understand what the fetal heart monitor was telling her, she didn't know Chris was being suffocated.

Shortly after Chris' birth, however, Mary Wilson's doctor told her that each time he had read the strip, it showed a healthy heart rate. He also just happened to ask "if I had been approached by any neo-natal nurses regarding filing a lawsuit," Mary Wilson recalls. "He later mailed me a Time or a Newsweek with a cover story on infant brain damage" and a bill for $5,000, which the Wilsons added to their $45,000 hospital bill.

By the time Chris was 2 months old, his parents were back working full time. Don worked in pest control, Mary for Chatham County in its child support department so that she could keep the family's health insurance. The Wilsons were squeezed into a two-bedroom, rented apartment.

Chris was miserable.

He was "inconsolably fussy, rarin' mad," Mary says. "That little boy didn't sleep through the night until he was 4 years old. It was a real nightmare. You just felt so helpless. Why couldn't I bring him out of it?"

Doctors determined that he was probably experiencing painful muscle spasms, a problem that didn't abate until doctors implanted a pump in Chris' back that administers muscle relaxers to him round the clock.

At about the same time the Wilsons went back to work, they started hearing stories about Mary's doctor.

They learned that his privileges had been suspended at Candler Hospital. Candler's risk manager would not tell them why.

When Chris was 5 months old, Don retained a lawyer. Mary says their attorney read the fetal heart monitor strip and agreed take the case on contingency, no money up front.

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