Reflections on high stakes reform

Ann Knef Jan. 7, 2005, 3:25am

The leader of the free world and an entourage of national media descended upon Madison County to engage in the raging tort reform debate. Following are reflections from those with an interest in President Bush’s address:

“It was great to see President Bush here,” said Steve Schoeffel, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch. “It is unfortunate the circumstances that brought him here being known all over the country as the lawsuit haven, but I think it will help the momentum for local and federal legislators to pass a bill that will bring some kind of common sense civil justice reform to this county.”

Jim Copland, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and director of the Center for Legal Policy which has extensively studied Madison County, said the president’s visit was “very appropriate” given the local venue's distinction as a magnet court.

According to Copland, the president’s reform initiatives are aimed at fixing problem courts such as Madison County’s. When state courts allow mass class action lawsuits, it interferes with interstate commerce and it becomes “a national problem,” he said.

“Madison County is an embarrassment as far as the legal system goes,” Copland added, and suggested that economics is the reason for those who disagree. "The defenders of the status quo have a vested financial interest in magnet courts. Attorneys there make an exceptional living,” he said.

But the Center for Justice and Democracy, which held a press conference before the president’s visit to protest his proposals, believes capping non-economic damages and removing class actions to federal court is not fair.

“Federal courts are already over burdened,” said CJ&D executive director Joanne Doroshow. She also said damage awards for those who’ve been injured should be left up to a judge and jury, “not politicians.”

At the press conference, CJ & D presented an open letter to the president, on behalf of 29 Illinoisans who have been involved in medical malpractice cases. The letter requested a face-to-face meeting with the president.

“You have called medical malpractice lawsuits 'frivolous' and you blame patients who sue for doctors’ skyrocketing insurance rates - even though the blame rests squarely on the insurance industry, not us,” the group states in its letter.

“Our cases are not frivolous. You need to hear our stories, and to understand the unacceptable degree of medical malpractice that goes on in this country and our proposals to solve this problem.”

Edwardsville plaintiff’s attorney, John Hopkins—whose MCR’s column (Jan. 10) “Sidebar” pokes at the presdient’s plan, remarked: “(The president) said that in the cases of gross or egregious harm, punitive damages are appropriate. We have not had punitive damage claims against health care providers since the mid 1980s in Illinois. Does that mean that under the Bush plan, punitive damages are now in play against doctors and hospitals?”

Doug Wojcieszak, a spokesperson for Victims and Families United—a group which believes the solution to the medical malpractice crisis can be found in a program “Sorry Works”—said the president’s speech was disingenuous.

“I’m not sure why the president was here to pitch his idea of caps on lawsuits to save money for doctors,” he said. “There's only been one (lawsuit) that would have qualified under his reform plan.

“The other question I have is, the president kept referring to how many junk lawsuits, frivolous lawsuits, and those without merit--capping those. Okay fine.

“But he said he would not cap meritorious suits.

“That was the most disjointed, intellectually discombobulated statement I've ever heard.”

An attorney for the American Tort Reform Association, which labeled Madison County as the nation’s No. 1 judicial hellhole, Victor Schwartz, said the president’s visit was more than symbolic.

“It reflects certain places in our nation where people cannot get a fair trial and the President of the United States realizes it. Three years ago the only people who knew about it, are the people here, the plaintiff’s lawyers, and the defendants dragged into lawsuits.

“Now it is known nation-wide.

“All we want is an even playing field, and I think that is what the president wants, and I think it is very meaningful that he came to the spot that ATRA named the No. 1 problem in America and St. Clair too."

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