The Nashua Telegraph reported recently on the ruling a high-profile medical malpractice case that sets standards for how certain “alternative” adjudication procedures are allowed in certain med mal cases. The ruling is a reminder of the various facets of different “reform” efforts seeking to deny the basic right to a jury trial in these injury cases.
The Malpractice Law
There is a misconception that damage caps are the only major “tort reform” effort being pushed in states across the country. The reality is that there are many different kinds of laws being proposed and sometimes passed which change various facets of the civil justice system. In virtually all cases, however, the laws are pushed by big defendants (like insurance companies) seeking to limit the practical rights of community members seeking to hold others accountable for their negligent conduct.
The law at issue in this case was the use of a “panel” to determine possible medical negligence in cases before a traditional trial with a judge and jury. The law was passed in NH several years ago, but the state’s Supreme Court has finally heard a case challenging the validity of the law. According to this story the court upheld the law in large part, though it did alter some details of the way the panel’s rulings are used.
The plaintiff in this case was the family of a woman who died after, her family claims, she was not referred to a specialist in a timely manner. The family sued a hospital and medical providers following the tragedy. However, because of the law, the case went to a panel of three which determined that there was no negligence on the part of the hospital. The family appealed. Initially, a court sided with the family and found the panel to be an unconstitutional alternative to the right to a jury trial. The case eventually made it’s way to the highest court in the state.
In a ruling just handed down, the supreme court held that the panels are largely constitutional. These panels are formed in the aftermath of the filing of a malpractice claim in the state. The panel then spends a day or so reviewing the evidence before reaching a ruling. In general, these panels have very lenient rules regarding the admissability of evidence, use of witnesses, and other trial practice details. This opens the door for a range of problems with the fairness of these hearings.
A case can still go to trial following the panel’s decision, however, the jury in the case will be told of the findings. In addition, a judge has discretion regarding how many details of the panel’s deliberations will be shared with the jury. Of course, it is obvious that this information can significantly influence the decisions made by the factfinder in a traditional trial. Considering the less stringent evidentiary rules in the panel deliberations, this is often a way for less fairness to seep into the process. In addition, it is a another timely, costly roadblock thrown in the way of those hurt by medical negligence before ultimately receiving compensation for their harm. It remains disappointing that those who claim to want to cut down on litigation costs continue to push for laws which just add more layers to the process.
Fighting for Plaintiff Rights
This case is a reminder of the vital importance of fighting hard against legislative maneuvers that seek to alter the rights of community members in all cases. Unfortunately, these laws are often dressed up in postivie-sounding language that makes it seem like a logical change to voters. But what residents do not know is that the practical effect of these laws are almost always the same–making it harder for those hurt to recover and further insulating big companies from having the pay fully for the consequences of their negligence.
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