Are Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Frivolous?
These days we hear a constant refrain from media pundits and politicians that there can be no meaningful health care reform without tort reform. They maintain that the way to save real health care dollars in the process of revamping the health care delivery system is to include provisions in the legislation that would put an end to “frivolous” lawsuits. The argument is that “frivolous” law suits drive up the cost of health care by causing doctors and hospitals to charge more for the care they deliver and these costs get passed on to the consumer in the form of higher insurance premiums and medical bills. For the most part, this argument goes unchallenged. Because there is little media or public debate over the issue, it is largely accepted as true that nearly all medical malpractice lawsuits are frivolous and should be markedly curtailed. But who would be the real losers and winners if patients lost the right to sue for medical negligence?
The term “frivolous lawsuit” refers to a silly or trivial case with no sound basis in fact or law. Put it another way, it is a case that is a waste of the litigants time and money. The most common example voiced by prospective jurors when the inevitable issue of “too many lawsuits” or “frivolous lawsuits” comes up during jury selection is the McDonald’s case. Advocates of tort reform have made a convincing argument, believed by most people that the case was simply silly and did not belong in the court system. The real facts are virtually unknown. In at least one case of which I am aware, the judge interrupted voir dire to accurately explain the facts to prospective jurors. He explained that the 79 year old plaintiff sustained third degree burns to her genital area when she spilled scalding hot coffee purchased at McDonald’s. McDonald’s ordered it franchisees to sell their coffee at 190 degrees F (water boils at 212 degrees) and refused to change their policy even though they had settled over 700 coffee burn claims. The plaintiff was hospitalized for 7 days and underwent surgical skin grafting. McDonalds offered her $800 to settle her claim. The jury awarded her $160,000 in damages and punitive damages equal to two days profits earned by McDonald on its coffee sales. Because of the media barrage surrounding frivolous suits, the uninformed continue to equate medical malpractice lawsuits to the McDonalds case.