Green parking meter reads "expired."

How the Unpredictable Long-Term Effects of COVID-19 Infection Pose a Challenge That Tort Law Cannot Meet

By Jennifer S. Bard

The longer the pandemic continues, the more obvious it is how effective the sweeping federal and state laws shielding medical providers from malpractice associated with COVID-19 have been. Few cases have been brought, and so far there is no record of successful judgements or settlements.

Even without these statutes, proving negligence in COVID-related cases would be exceptionally difficult, given the ever-evolving virus and treatment options. Still today it would be hard to prove that any good faith attempt at care was unreasonable and that there was a causal link to greater harm — both necessary to demonstrate negligence.

But, at some time in the relatively near future, this will change. The declared public health emergency will end, and with it the federal and remaining state blanket liability protections. A standard of care will develop and issues involving the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of COVID-19 will become the subject of tort litigation.

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Kirkland, WA / USA - circa March 2020: Street view of the Life Care Center of Kirkland building, ground zero of the coronavirus outbreak in Kirkland.

The PREP Act and Nursing Homes’ Fight to Move COVID Claims to Federal Court

By Kaitlynn Milvert

As nursing homes face wrongful death claims amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they increasingly have pursued a common litigation strategy: attempting to reroute state tort lawsuits to federal court.

A recent ruling in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this tactic. As the first court of appeals ruling on this issue, the decision avoids extending a federal statute limiting pandemic liability into unprecedented areas and defines at least some limits on the statute’s effect on state tort suits. Read More

Busy Nurse's Station In Modern Hospital

COVID-19 Clinical Negligence and Patient Safety Update

By John Tingle

Health care law is evolving particularly rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, families in England who have lost loved ones to the virus are considering filing clinical negligence claims. And there have even been calls in some quarters to bring global lawsuits against China for breaches of international health regulations over its handling of COVID 19.

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Tort Law: Public and Private

By Alex Stein

Readers interested in medical malpractice might be interested in seeing—and commenting on—my new article, The Domain of Torts, forthcoming in 117 Colum. L. Rev. (2017).

This Article advances a novel positive theory of the law of torts that grows out of a careful and extensive reading of the case law. The Article’s core insight is that the benefit from the harm-causing activity determines the form and substance of tort liability. This finding is both surprising and innovative, since tort scholars universally believe that the operation of the doctrines that determine individuals’ liability for accidents—negligence, causation, and damage—is driven by harms, not benefits. The key role of benefits in the operation of our tort system has eluded the searching eye of scholars, even though it is fully consistent with the case law.

Specifically, this Article shows that our tort system operates in two parallel modes—private and public—rather than just one, as conventional accounts erroneously suggest. Furthermore, the system’s mode of operation and the rules allocating liability for accidental harm are dictated by the type of the benefit sought by the alleged tortfeasor. If the benefit sought by the tortfeasor is purely private, she will be held liable for the harm resulting from her actions whenever she exposes her victim to a nonreciprocal risk. The tort system never allows actors to inflict harm on others when the benefit they seek to derive from their activity is purely private, no matter how significant that private benefit is relative to the victim’s harm. The system consequently does not hesitate to discourage the production of private benefits even when they are economically more valuable than the victim’s safety. That is, in cases of private benefit, tort law excludes cost-benefit analysis in favor of the reciprocity and equality principles. When the benefit that accompanies the harm-causing activity is public, by contrast, tort law adopts a strictly utilitarian approach and focuses exclusively on minimizing the cost of accidents and the cost of avoiding accidents as a total sum. Liability in such cases is imposed based on the famous Learned Hand formula (and similar formulations). Accordingly, if the benefit from the harm-causing activity is greater than the expected harm and precautions are too costly, no liability will be imposed. The consequent reduction in the victim’s protection is counterweighted by society’s need not to chill the production of public benefits that the victim enjoys on equal terms with all other members of her community. Read More

Medical Malpractice and the Middle-Ground Fallacy: Should Victims’ Families Recover Compensation for Emotional Harm?

By Alex Stein

Medical malpractice victims are generally entitled to recover compensation for emotional harm they endure: see, e.g., Alexander v. Scheid, 726 N.E.2d 272, 283–84 (Ind. 2000). But what about a victim’s close family member? Take a person who suffers emotional distress from witnessing a medical mistreatment and the consequent injury or demise of her loved one. Should the court obligate the negligent physician or hospital to compensate that person for her emotional harm?

This question has no uniform answer under our medical malpractice laws. Some states allow victims’ families to recover compensation for their emotional harm, while others do not. Three weeks ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court struck a middle ground between these two extremes. Squeo v. Norwalk Hosp. Ass’n, 316 Conn. 558, — A.3d —- (Conn. 2015). Read More

Exploring the Brain in Pain: An Applied Neuroscience & Law Initiative

Amanda C. Pustilnik

I am excited to join the Petrie-Flom Center as the first Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience. This fellowship is the product of an innovative partnership between the Petrie-Flom Center and the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (CLBB) at Massachusetts General Hospital. This partnership aims to translate developments in neuroscience into legal applications, remaining sensitive to the normative dimensions of many – if not all – legal questions. The field of law & neuroscience is large and growing, addressing questions that intersect with nearly every area of law and a huge range of social and human concerns. CLBB is bringing together scientists, bioethicists, and legal scholars to look at questions ranging from criminal responsibility and addiction, to mind-reading and brain-based lie detection, to how the brain’s changes over our lifecourse affect our capacities to make decisions.

In the first year of this joint venture, we will be focusing on a set of issues with potentially huge implications for the law: The problem of pain. Pain is pervasive in law, from tort to torture, from ERISA to expert evidence. Pain and suffering damages in tort add up to billions of dollars per year; disability benefits, often awarded to people who suffer or claim to have chronic pain, amount to over one hundred billion annually. Yet legal doctrines and decision-makers often understand pain poorly, relying on concepts that are out of date and that can cast suspicion on pain sufferers as having a problem that is “all in their heads.”

Now, brain imaging technologies are allowing scientists to see the brain in pain – and to reconceive of many types of pain as diseases of the central nervous system. Brain imaging shows that, in many cases, the problem is literally in sufferers’ heads: Long-term pain changes the structure and function of the brain, perpetuating non-adaptive pain and interfering with cognitive and emotional function. Read More