The Tort Mess
It's even worse than you think. Out-of-control lawsuits are shutting down medical practices,
killing businesses and costing the economy $200 billion a year.
For two and a half weeks this winter, Dr. Walter Eckman, 58, sat in a courtroom in the center of
Tupelo, Miss. as a defendant in a lawsuit. In 1999 a 27-year-old man had taken a fall at a movie
theater and was admitted to the emergency room at the North Mississippi Medical Center, where
Eckman was on call as a neurosurgeon. The patient was alert and awake but he had a headache
and a cut on the back of his head. Two days later he went into respiratory arrest, resulting in
severe brain damage. He died 15 months later.
Did Eckman screw up by not ordering enough tests? Yes, testified the widow's medical experts;
no, responded Eckman's equally qualified experts. It appeared to be the kind of judgment call
doctors make daily, this one with a tragic ending. But doctors and insurance companies are easy
targets in the hands of tort lawyers. The jury awarded the widow $5 million, double what a
similar case might have yielded just a few years ago.
The country has grown immune to verdicts like these: $5 million for a medical tragedy; $50
million in punitive damages for business interference in a case involving $1.5 million; $150
million to six Mississippi plaintiffs in October who are not sick but fear they may suffer someday
from asbestos-related illnesses; $1 billion for punitive damages over the alleged contamination of
33 acres of land. It sounds at first like yesterday's news--weren't we hearing a decade ago about a
$3 million verdict for a hot cup of coffee or $4 million for a repainted BMW? The tort crisis,
though, is really tomorrow's news. If the momentum of litigation costs cannot be slowed, it could
easily, in the space of a few years, crush important parts of the economy.
Look at the devastating consequences in Mississippi. The North Mississippi Medical Center, a
hospital that serves 22 counties and 600,000 people, is now finding it all but impossible to recruit
new doctors. They're scared away by the state's tort-friendly medical malpractice environment,
soaring insurance premiums and word of the $5 million award. The hospital's insurance
premiums have doubled in the last year to $2 million. It may have to cut back on emergency
services. There is now no neurosurgeon on call one out of every four days. If there's a wreck on
the highway that bisects town, or on any of the winding roads in northern Mississippi or
Alabama, it will take at least one hour for the victim to be transported to the nearest
neurosurgeon in Memphis or Jackson. That hour is crucial; it could cost a life.
In the next few years, predicts insurance consultancy Tillinghast-Towers Perrin, tort costs could