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Bush Campaigns to Curb Lawsuits

President Says 'Junk' Litigation Is Driving Small-Town Doctors Out of Business

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2005; Page A06

COLLINSVILLE, Ill., Jan. 5 -- President Bush opened a campaign-style drive Wednesday to push through legislation curbing lawsuits, traveling to the epicenter in the debate over medical malpractice to paint a bleak picture of small communities crippled by runaway litigation.

In his first trip of the new year, Bush surrounded himself with doctors in white coats to argue that "junk lawsuits" were driving physicians out of places such as Collinsville, ranked by advocates as the friendliest place in the United States for trial lawyers chasing big awards. "You see firsthand what happens when the system gets out of control," he told a crowd of supporters.

_____Bush Speech_____
Video: President Bush pressured Congress to pass legislation limiting jury awards for medical malpractice, saying the legal system favors attorneys who file baseless cases that drive up the cost of health care.
_____From the Post_____
Bush to Seek Limits on Lawsuits (The Washington Post, Jan 5, 2005)

Bush intends to devote much of the rest of the week to the issue, seeking to make it the first major legislative victory of the new Congress that convened Tuesday. After returning to Washington, he plans to meet with congressional leaders from both parties Thursday to discuss proposed restrictions on class-action lawsuits and then will get back on Air Force One on Friday to fly to Michigan to stump for limitations on asbestos-related claims.

Legislation supported by Bush passed the House in the last Congress but stalled in the Senate, where trial lawyers and their allies have managed to block such proposals for years. During his speech, Bush demanded that Congress send him "meaningful, real" legislation "so I can sign it in 2005."

In flying to this onetime coal-mining region across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Bush hoped to make it a case study in the need for liability legislation. But Madison and St. Clair counties provide a more complicated paradigm than the president presented.

Lawsuits soared in the two counties in recent years as lawyers flocked here to file claims often involving plaintiffs and defendants with no connection to the area. The number of class-action suits filed in Madison County jumped from two in 1998 to 106 in 2003. As a result, the American Tort Reform Association dubbed Madison County the nation's worst "judicial hellhole," followed by St. Clair County.

Among the suits cited as frivolous by the group were a claim against a mortgage company for overcharging $9.46 in interest and against a bank for charging those without accounts $5 fees to cash checks. One man filed 20 class-action suits in 2003 against medical insurance providers, the organization said.

"If you see a team of trial lawyers spending a lot of time in the Collinsville area, you can be pretty sure they're not looking for horseradish," Bush said to laughter.

But for all the claims filed, plaintiffs won few of the giant awards that usually prompt calls for reform, according to local lawyers, advocacy groups and news reports. Of about 700 malpractice and wrongful-death claims filed in Madison and St. Clair counties from 1996 to 2003, 14 resulted in verdicts and six of those favored the plaintiffs, a study by the Belleville News-Democrat newspaper found last summer. Even of those six, at least two did not involve awards above the $250,000 cap Bush would set on noneconomic damages.

"When they talk about awards and judgments and things of that nature, they're just not here," said Judy Cates, a local lawyer who just lost a $300 million class-action suit against Allstate Insurance Co. in St. Clair County. ". . . The mood of the average juror right now is if you can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt we're not going to give you a verdict."

The debate over the issue has grown particularly intense here, though, because of rising insurance premiums for doctors attributed to the risk of liability. About 160 physicians have shut down or moved their practices out of Madison and St. Clair counties recently because they could no longer afford the premium, according to the White House.

Several such doctors appeared with Bush, including a neurosurgeon who closed his head-trauma practice because his annual premiums doubled from $131,000 to $265,000 over two years, while his insurance coverage was halved. Also participating was a pregnant woman who is on her third obstetrician since conceiving because the first two moved.

"It's a problem that we must address," Bush said. "America's health care professionals should be focused on fighting illnesses, not on fighting lawsuits. Junk lawsuits change the way docs do their job. Instead of trying to heal the patients, doctors try not to get sued." He argued that doctors afraid of lawsuits practice "defensive medicine," ordering expensive, unneeded tests and nationally piling up $60 billion to $100 billion a year in excess costs.

Anger over disappearing doctors helped fuel a high-priced campaign in the November election for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. Each side spent a record $4 million in a showdown between trial lawyers and physicians watched around the nation. Voters concerned about lawsuit-happy courts rejected Democratic Judge Gordon Maag from Madison County in favor of Republican Lloyd Karmeier and simultaneously ousted Maag from his appeals court seat.

Some consumer groups and trial lawyers acknowledge that skyrocketing premiums were creating a health care crisis in this part of southern Illinois but disagree about the cause. Rather than limit the ability of victims to recover damages, they said, the government should be going after profiteering insurance companies.

Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice & Democracy, a consumer advocacy organization, said the issue in this region is not about the legal system but about select judges who do not kowtow to business.

"It's an attack on the judges in these counties," she said. "It's about how these business groups and conservative groups are trying to get rid of these judges. From a judicial independence point of view, it's really dangerous to be going after judges this way."

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