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Litigation Explosion

Frivolous lawsuits are not just an irritant; they may limit access to physicians

By Dr. Christine Canterbury
August 26, 2002

If junk lawsuits were a crime, Texas would have a significant number of personal injury lawyers on the "Most Wanted List."

A Corpus Christi lawyer was recently fined $50,000 for filing frivolous lawsuits. How did the judge know they were frivolous? The patient whom the lawyer claimed was harmed by a drug had never even been prescribed the drug.

While this lawyer got a taste of the bitter medicine he had coming, unfortunately fines alone are not likely to stop big-time personal injury lawyers who stand to make millions in legal fees by generating as many plaintiffs as they can - regardless of the facts.

Suing doctors and drug companies for medicines people haven't even taken or for medicines that have actually helped people isn't as rare as we would like to think. This lawsuit is one example of the type of "shot in the dark" tactics some lawyers are using across the state: trying to file as many suits as possible, hoping a few will end with extraordinary rewards.

The same lawyer who got hit with the $50,000 fine encourages everyone to step up and take their shot with a sign across from the Children's Hospital. It is cases like these that show these people aren't fighting for Texans; they're fighting for themselves. Their actions do a lot more than just line their pockets with huge contingency fees. Their actions harm every Texan.

If we continue to allow junk lawsuits to go unchallenged, Texans soon will have severely limited access to doctors. Physicians are leaving the state or retiring early because their malpractice insurance is unbearably high. Some are choosing not to practice high-risk medicine, such as obstetrics and neurosurgery. The Texas Insurance Commissioner expects 6,000 physicians to be without medical malpractice insurance by the end of 2002.

This problem is not unique to Texas. It has escalated to the point that it has caught the eye of the president. President Bush recently commented, "Because premiums go up or . . . lawsuits are threatening doctors, it means some of the docs can't get insurance coverage, which means they no longer want to provide care. And that hurts people . . ."

Even when doctors stay in the business and cover the high cost of malpractice insurance, they frequently practice defensive medicine, ordering extensive tests to protect themselves from liability. How does this hurt you? Your healthcare costs go up, plain and simple.

Some doctors have stopped prescribing medicines that are appearing in lawyer ads even though they believe that the medicine has real benefits for their patient.

Why? Because they are terrified of being on the receiving end of another lawsuit.

Patients are the real victims of the "lawsuit gang." Stories abound of patients who get scared when they see a tidal wave of personal injury lawyer advertising and stop taking their medicines.

Make no mistake, irresponsible personal injury lawyer ads are making people sick - in more ways than one. One $50,000 fine against one lawyer is a step in the right direction, but we must continue this fight against lawsuit abuse. Governor Perry has made some excellent suggestions for legal reform. But as individual citizens, we can do our share as informed patients, consumers and voters.

Dr. Christine Canterbury is an OB-GYN in Corpus Christi and a board member of Bay Area Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

Lawsuit Abuse Makes Us Sick
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