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Santorum pushed to limit malpractice awards but sought larger payout for wife

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On the campaign trail, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum says he will push to limit payments to victims in medical malpractice lawsuits, which he blames for unnecessarily driving up health-care costs. And over the course of his two decades in politics, he repeatedly spoke in favor of capping such awards.

But Santorum testified in support of his wife when she filed a medical malpractice suit in 1999 that sought $500,000, twice the cap in his 1994 legislative proposal. Karen Santorum claimed that a Fairfax chiropractor had left her with a permanent back injury that probably would result in a lifetime of pain medication and restricted mobility.

This fall, while campaigning in Iowa, Santorum told reporters that he backed some limits but that his wife did not sue for “pain and suffering, which is the area I think we should cap.”

Although the lawsuit did not seek a specific figure for pain and suffering, the former senator testified in the case about the emotional and physical toll on his wife and how that justified a sizable monetary award, transcripts show. The judge in the case also made clear that the majority of the $350,000 the jury awarded the family was largely for unspecific losses and pain and suffering, an amount he concluded was “excessive.”

Santorum’s campaign advisers and spokesman did not respond to repeated requests by phone and e-mail for comment. But he has said in the past that there was no conflict between his testimony in his wife’s medical suit and his push to curtail payments to victims of medical malpractice.

Opponents of limiting malpractice claims disagree.

“It’s pretty hypocritical of him,” said Steven Bergstein, an Allentown, Pa., lawyer who represents medical victims in malpractice cases as well as corporations. “Politicians complain about these kinds of claims, but when they speak out publicly, they don’t think about the real people affected by these tragic events. When they are the real person affected, suddenly they have a totally different view.”

The lawsuit stemmed from a family tragedy, when in 1996 Karen Santorum gave birth prematurely to the couple’s fourth child, a son who died the same day. Suffering lower-back pain after the delivery, Karen Santorum sought out a Burke chiropractor, David Dolberg, for help.

Dolberg performed a spinal ma­nipu­la­tion, which he and other experts testified was a standard, recommended therapy for her symptoms. Karen Santorum said that the treatment caused a herniated disk in her spine, which was surgically removed a week later.

Dolberg declined to comment.

Brewster Rawls, Dolberg’s attorney in the suit, defended his client.

“The medical evidence was clear that Mrs. Santorum suffered no serious injury,” Rawls said. “Quite simply, the outcome of this case — even with the trial court reducing the verdict by 50 percent — was entirely unfair to this good doctor.”

The Santorums unsuccessfully sought to seal the records in the lawsuit against Dolberg and the center where he worked, saying her husband’s role as a senator would draw attention to the case and violate his wife’s privacy.

At the four-day trial, the Santorums both testified to the non-economic losses she and their family suffered. Santorum told the Fairfax County Circuit Court jury that his wife wasn’t able to do some of the tasks she enjoyed as a mother. He said the pain made her unable to exercise and stay fit, and now she “does not have the confidence” to help him with public events on his campaigns.

“We have to go out and do a lot of public things,” Rick Santorum said. “She wants to look nice, so it’s really difficult.”

As the case was pending, Rick Santorum told reporters that he thought the $250,000 cap on malpractice awards in his 1994 legislative proposal might be too low, given the injury his wife had suffered.

Karen Santorum’s attorney, Heather Heidelbaugh, stressed to the jury that her client suffered “severe and permanent neurologic damage” and this trial was “their only opportunity for justice.” The jury wouldn’t be around, she said, “10 years from now, when she is 49 years old and can’t get out of bed . . . can’t play with her sons.”

After the jury’s award, Santorum said that he was not a party to the suit and that the proceedings were “a personal family matter.” He added that he was “fully supportive” of his wife.

The next month, the presiding trial judge, Arthur B. Vieregg, cut the award in half to $175,000. He called the verdict “excessive” and the product of “undue sympathy,” noting that her medical costs from the injury totaled just over $18,000.

“The subjective testimony of Mrs. Santorum and her husband is belied to some degree by the fact that Mrs. Santorum sought virtually no medical treatment following the operation,” the judge said, according to a court transcript. He noted that her surgeon testified she “reported immediate relief” after the surgery. Santorum, whose wife has been at his side often as he has campaigned for president over the past year, said in the fall that he was generally in favor of a cap on awarding money for pain and suffering, fearing that juries could be swayed by sympathy and award excess amounts for intangible, non-economic damages.

This fall, in telling reporters that his wife had not sued for pain and suffering, he added that “the areas that she sued for were out-of-pocket costs, medical costs, as well as for lost income going forward and things like that.”

In 2003, he proposed capping pain and suffering awards at $250,000 and allowing larger awards when more than one doctor or medical facility is involved in a malpractice case.

Research editors Alice Crites and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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