Medical Malpractice Law as a Triumph of Procedure Over Substance

By Alex Stein

When Sir Henry Maine wrote (here, on page 389) that early substantive law was “secreted in the interstices of procedure,” he did not know that he was coining a long-lasting adage. Even less did he anticipate that this adage will aptly describe our today’s system of medical malpractice.

This system normally requires plaintiffs to accompany their suits with an affidavit or certificate of merit from an eligible medical expert. The expert must show that s/he practices medicine in the same field or specialty as the defendant doctor and is familiar with the standards, protocols and procedures followed by physicians working in that field or specialty (in some jurisdictions, the expert only needs to satisfy the familiarity condition). The expert also must identify the malpractice: the defendant’ deviation from one of those standards, protocols or procedures. Finally, the expert must certify that there is a reasonable medical possibility that the defendant’s malpractice has injured the plaintiff or aggravated her condition. When a plaintiff fails to submit an affidavit that satisfies this checklist requirement, the court must dismiss her suit. The checklist requirement thus creates a “safe harbor” for doctors who go by the rules and blocks away unmeritorious suits. For details, see here.

The Supreme Court of Idaho has recently taken the checklist requirement to its extreme. This unfortunate development took place in Hall v. Rocky Mountain Emergency Physicians,— P.3d —-, 2013 WL 4768310 (Idaho 2013). Read More

Safe Surgery Checklists May Raise Unintended Ethical and Legal Questions, Especially in Low-Resource Settings

By Matt Baum

The WHO Surgical Safety Checklist is unusual as a patient-safety intervention in that it has been widely promoted as universally effective, i.e. effective both in high-income and resource-limited settings; checklists are now used in approximately 1800 hospitals worldwide. In a paper recently published in the journal, BMJ Open, Aveling and colleagues report the results of a qualitative study on the implementation of the WHO checklist in two UK hospitals and two hospitals in resource-constrained settings in Africa.  Their results suggest that the checklist is “no magic bullet” – that if adopted without proper investment and adaptation to the context of the target hospital, the checklist not only may fail to replicate benefits, but can actually levy its own unintended costs – especially in resource-limited settings. Though the study raises a number of interesting questions, given the nature of this blog, I am hoping that we might start a discussion about  those in the domain of ethics and law.

For example, consider the following real case, which was reported in the BMJ paper:

“A patient admitted for cholecystectomy [surgical removal of the gallbladder] suffered hypoxic [oxygen depriviation-related] brain injury and died following surgery. Subsequently, two staff members (not the surgeon) were threatened with guns by the patient’s family, who said that the surgical team had killed the patient. The two staff members were later arrested and criminal charges brought against one of them. One of the questions asked during the police investigation was whether a pulse oximeter [i.e. a tool for measuring blood-oxygen levels] had been used. It had not: according to staff, no pulse oximeter was available for use, even though the checklist requiring use of this equipment was, officially, in use at the hospital.”

The staff members also did not get any legal representation for weeks because there were no clear policies established surrounding who was responsible for providing that counsel.

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Bypassing Damage Caps

By Alex Stein

Damage caps are widespread. A typical cap provision precludes medical malpractice victims from recovering more than a specified sum for pain, suffering and other noneconomic harms. These caps vary between $250,000 (as in California that might soon increase its cap by a referendum) and a $1,500,000-$500,000 scale (as in Florida). Some state supreme courts (e.g., Georgia, Illinois, and Wisconsin) voided the caps as unconstitutional, but many others (e.g., Alaska, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio and West Virginia) have upheld their constitutionality. In a few states (e.g., Florida and Texas), statutory caps had to be corrected to secure their alignment with state constitutions.

Damage caps are controversial.  Some people believe that they help contain the costs and secure the affordability of medical care. Others believe that caps shortchange malpractice victims and weaken the deterrence of malpractitioners. People falling into the first group generally support tort reforms. People falling into the second group ardently oppose those reforms. For my middle-way position—that supports procedural tort reforms that block away unsubstantiated malpractice suits, while opposing damage caps and other substantive tort reformssee here.

The plaintiffs bar expectedly tries to bypass the caps: see Catherine Sharkey’s important article that identifies the “crossover” dynamic: Facing caps on their clients’ noneconomic recovery, patients’ attorneys boost and vigorously pursue their clients’ claims for economic damages with the jurors’ blessing and approval.

Another, relatively recent, way of bypassing the cap is splitting the “occurrence” or “event” of medical malpractice into several events or occurrences. When successful, this strategy doubles, or more than doubles, the recoverable compensation amount. Read More

A New Trend? Hospital Successfully Sues its Patient’s Attorneys for Filing a Vexatious Malpractice Suit

By Alex Stein

Connecticut’s Appellate Court ruled in yesterday’s decision that hospitals and doctors can successfully sue their patients’ attorneys for filing a vexatious malpractice suit. The Court also ruled that the trial judge’s decision that the patient’s suit was vexatious will often create an estoppel against the attorney. The attorney will consequently be precluded from contesting that decision. The only issue will then be the amount of damages—double or treble—that the attorney and her firm will be obligated to pay the hospital or the doctor.  See Charlotte Hungerford Hospital v. Creed — A.3d —-, 2013 WL 3378824 (Conn. App. 2013).

Whether this is going to be a trend in our medical malpractice law remains to be seen. In the meantime, I provide the details of that important decision. Read More

Governmental immunity for EMTs

By Alex Stein

According to the recent New York Court of Appeals’ decision—Applewhite v. Accuhealth, Inc., 2013 WL 3185185 (N.Y. 2013)—governmental immunity is a starting point for any inquiry into EMTs’ liability for malpractice.

The Court based this immunity on the famous “duty to all is duty to none” principle: in providing a vital emergency service to public in general, EMTs function in a governmental capacity and owe no duty to any specific individual. The Court explained that EMTs differ from the regular providers of medical care—doctors and nurses, who are subject to stringent licensing requirements and must have extensive educational and training credentials—in that they provide only emergency medical stabilization in Basic (as opposed to Advanced) Life Support ambulances. EMTs are also funded and remunerated differently from doctors and nurses: they operate on a limited municipal budget that depends on the taxpayers’ money and cannot afford malpractice payouts. Dilution of the EMTs’ budget might limit the municipal emergency response systems to mere transport service—a consequence that society can ill-afford. Read More

Decrease in the patient’s chances to survive held actionable as a standalone damage in Minnesota

By Alex Stein

On May 31, 2013, the Supreme Court of Minnesota has delivered an immensely important decision: it recognized as actionable a patient’s increased risk of dying resulting from her doctor’s negligent failure to secure timely diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Dickhoff v. Green, — N.W.2d —, 2013 WL 2363550 (Minn. 2013)

This case involved a family physician (the defendant) and her baby patient (the plaintiff). The baby had a lump on her buttock, which the defendant allegedly considered a non-issue for nearly a year. At the 1–year well-baby check, the defendant referred the baby to a specialist, who diagnosed her with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (ARS)—a rare and aggressive childhood cancer. The baby subsequently underwent a tumor-removal surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but remained dangerously ill. Read More

Guest Post: No liability for failure to vaccinate? The case has not been made: A Response to Mary Holland

As of Friday, June 28, this post is closed to further comments. We want to thank the many readers who have engaged in a vigorous and civil discussion on the recent posts to the Bill of Health that engage questions related to the debate over vaccines. In general, we do not moderate discussions on the site. However, due to an increasing number of comments that violate our policies regarding abusive and defamatory language and the sharing of personal information, we are closing these posts to comment.

By Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, LLB, Ph.D.

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss (LLB, Ph.D.) is Professor of Law at UC Hastings College of the Law. She has published articles on regulation and administrative law and teaches tort law. She is also a member of the Parents Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines and writes the blog Before Vaccines

In a guest post on this blog, Mary Holland, JD, suggests that there are no grounds for imposing tort liability on parents for failure to vaccinate alone, even if it led to another person being infected. Holland’s post is courteous and matter-of-fact, and there are certainly arguments for that position, especially the argument that common law rarely imposes a duty to act. But Ms. Holland did not make that case.

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Guest Post: Crack Down on Those Who Don’t Vaccinate?: A Response to Art Caplan

As of Friday, June 28, this post is closed to further comments. We want to thank the many readers who have engaged in a vigorous and civil discussion on the recent posts to the Bill of Health that engage questions related to the debate over vaccines. In general, we do not moderate discussions on the site. However, due to an increasing number of comments that violate our policies regarding abusive and defamatory language and the sharing of personal information, we are closing these posts to comment.

By Mary Holland, J.D.

Mary Holland is Research Scholar and Director of the Graduate Legal Skills Program at NYU Law School. She has published articles on vaccine law and policy, and is the co-editor of Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights, Our Health and Our Children (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012). 

Dr. Art Caplan recently posted an editorial, “Liability for Failure to Vaccinate,” on this blog. He argues that those who contract infectious disease should be able to recover damages from unvaccinated people who spread it. If you miss work, or your baby has to go to the hospital because of infectious disease, the unvaccinated person who allegedly caused the harm should pay. Dr. Caplan suggests that such liability is apt because vaccines are safe and effective. He sees no difference between this situation and slip-and-fall or car accidents due to negligence. Arguing that “a tiny minority continue to put the rest of us at risk,” he suggests that public health officials can catch the perpetrators and hold them to account through precise disease tracing.

Dr. Caplan’s assertions to the contrary, vaccines are neither completely safe nor completely effective. In fact, from a legal standpoint, vaccines, like all prescription drugs, are “unavoidably unsafe.”  [See, e.g., Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, 562 U.S. __ (2011).‎] Industry considered its liability for vaccine injury so significant that it lobbied Congress for the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, providing doctors and vaccine manufacturers almost blanket liability protection for injuries caused by federally recommended vaccines. [See Authorizing Legislation.] The liability risk was so serious that the federal government created a special tribunal under the 1986 Act, the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, to pay the injured. Moreover, the Supreme Court in 2011 decided Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, prohibiting any individual from filing a civil suit for a defectively designed vaccine in any court in the country. Industry’s extraordinary protection against liability for vaccine injury does not correspond with glib statements, like those of Dr. Caplan, that vaccines are safe and effective. On the contrary, the law acknowledges that vaccines cause injury and death to some, with no screening in place to mitigate harm.  Read More

Liability for Failure to Vaccinate

As of Friday, June 28, this post is closed to further comments. We want to thank the many readers who have engaged in a vigorous and civil discussion on the recent posts to the Bill of Health that engage questions related to the debate over vaccines. In general, we do not moderate discussions on the site. However, due to an increasing number of comments that violate our policies regarding abusive and defamatory language and the sharing of personal information, we are closing these posts to comment.

By Art Caplan

Measles are breaking out all over Britain.  Getting fewer headlines is the fact that measles are back in the USA too.  In fact they are in our region.  A mini-epidemic is raging in Brooklyn.  Measles for cripes sake!  The disease that many of us over 60 had as kids that should never occur is back with a vengeance.  The reason for the diseases reappearance is simple—failure to vaccinate.  Maybe it is time to get tough on those whose choices put others at risk.

For decades, there has been a safe, effective vaccine that works exceedingly well against the measles–95% full protection for a kid who has been vaccinated– and nearly equally well at preventing transmission to others.  The more people have been vaccinated the tougher it is for measles to gain a foothold.

NY City health officials have reported 30 cases so far–26 in Borough Park and four more in Williamsburg.  The NY Daily News reports that the consequences of this outbreak have been dire:

“There have been two hospitalizations, a miscarriage and a case of pneumonia as a result of this outbreak,” a Health Department spokeswoman said. “All cases involved adults or children who were not vaccinated due to refusal or delays in vaccination.”

So far the outbreak has been among religious Jews some of whom shun getting the vaccine for their kids out of fear it causes autism Dr. Yu Shia Lin of Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park told The News.

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Human Subjects Case Unfolds

Institutional Review Boards are in the top news at outlets such as the New York Times, as a research debacle unfolds. I looked through the documents that are publicly available to figure out what happened and what to expect.

Researchers at 22 universities or hospitals in the US enrolled premature babies in a randomized controlled trial between 2004 and 2009. This was the second part of a broader study, but the first part of the study “raised no concerns” according to the US Office of Human Research Protections on page 2 of its determination letter to the lead institution, University of Alabama-Birmingham. OHRP is the federal agency in charge of enforcing human-subjects regulation.

For the second part of the study, though, OHRP found that all 23 IRBs that approved the study (at 22 research sites) violated federal regulations: IRBs should have made researchers tell the parents that they knew their babies would be at higher risk of death, neurological damage, or blindness if they enrolled in the study (pages 2 and 10 of UAB letter). OHRP has only posted a determination letter for UAB at this point, but it explains that at all of the sites, the agency found violations with consent documents “similar to those described” to UAB. The UAB IRB is in especially hot water because it seems first to have first approved the 2.5-page template consent form, which the other institutions used (page 5). If you read the last page of UAB’s letter, you can make a good guess at who may officially be getting bad news from OHRP soon.

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