Supporters to push med mal court in state assembly

Steve Stanek Jan. 12, 2005, 10:19am

State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld

Illinois Trial Lawyers Association President Kevin Conway

A court that would specialize in medical malpractice lawsuits would be created in the 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Madison and St. Clair Counties, under legislation that supporters promise to introduce this year.

Supporters say such a court is needed, because medical malpractice lawsuits often involve highly technical issues. Judges who specialize in medical malpractice would do a better job of handling evidence and sorting legitimate claims from exaggerated or bogus ones, said Senate Minority Leader David Luechtefeld (R-Okawville).

"I think we'll get judges who are very knowledgeable about health care issues, and about what is and is not medical malpractice," Luechtefeld said. "We'll also get a wider range in the jury pool. We'll choose (jurors) from not just one county, but a lot of counties, and get a more diverse jury pool."

Legislation to create a medical malpractice court on a test basis in the 5th Judicial District stalled in the General Assembly last year, but Luechtefeld promised that similar legislation would be introduced this spring.

The state's trial lawyers worked against last year's medical malpractice courts bill and likely would again this year, said Kevin Conway, president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

He called moves to create a specialized medical malpractice court "veiled attempts by one side to control a judicial process. That's why we're against it."

But Conway added, "It's not a totally bad idea, in that specialists can help."

He cited Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, which often brings in co-mediators to settle malpractice claims. One mediator represents the patient, and the other represents the doctors and hospital. Conway has been one of the mediators.

"Two things have happened there," Conway said. "They've brought in specialists early on to try to evaluate and compensate those who deserve it. The lawyers' fees have been reduced tremendously, because the mediation process is much less time-consuming and adversarial. There is less litigation. The people who have been through it generally have favorable views, because they've gotten some fairness from the process and their expenses were much less."

Luechtefeld disputes the notion that a specialist court is an attempt by one side to control the judicial process. He cited tax, workers compensation, and bankruptcy courts as examples of courts that have been created to deal with highly complicated matters.

"Precedent is there," Luechtefeld said.

Another proposal that died last year -- to create a medical malpractice review committee -- also will be introduced again this year, Luechtefeld said.

The medical malpractice review committee would declare whether a medical malpractice lawsuit has merit. Luechtefeld said a lawsuit could proceed regardless of the committee's opinion, but its findings would be admissable in court.

"None of us want legitimate claims to go unrewarded," Luechtefeld said. "There are mistakes that need to be rectified. We want just compensation for people who have been hurt. But in some locations, the balance is no longer there. We have the threat of these outrageous pain and suffering awards, which drives fear into people to settle" even when they have done nothing wrong.

David Dring, spokesman for House Republican Leader Tom Cross (R-Plainfield), said Cross "likes the idea" of a medical malpractice court.

"We focus more on the caps (on non-economic damages), and limits on going after a doctor's personal assets," Dring said, "but we like the specialty court concept."

Illinois is not alone in considering the creation of medical malpractice courts, according to Lindsay Fortado of The National Law Journal. In "States Weigh Med-Mal Courts," published Dec. 16, 2004, Fortado said, "While a medical malpractice court has yet to be created, the idea is being debated in at least four states -- Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania -- through legislation, budget maneuvers or proposed pilot programs.

"In addition, Common Good, a New York-based nonprofit group advocating legal reform in education and medical malpractice, has been outspoken in its support of it. Franklin Stone, the executive director of Common Good, said that it is currently in talks with 10 states, including New York and Virginia, regarding the creation of special health courts."

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