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Why tort reform isn’t doing health care any favors

Tort reform is often pushed with good intentions. The goal is to keep frivolous lawsuits out of court, and that’s an objective most Americans can get behind, including personal injury lawyers. However, the problem with tort reform — and the reason it has been unsuccessful over the past several decades — is that it doesn’t just affect frivilous lawsuits, but also meritorious ones.  The unfortunate result is that tort reform disarms an important check on the health care system.

Currently, 29 states, including Ohio, have imposed a cap on “pain and suffering” awards in medical malpractice cases. No matter how badly a patient is injured, and no matter how much money the jury may award at trial, the patient cannot recover more than the statory “cap.” In Ohio, that number is $500,000 for permanent injuries, and only $350,000 for non-permanent injuries. In other words, a patient who loses two legs as a result of a doctor’s error cannot recover any more money than a patient who lost only one leg.  Likewise, a patient who loses both legs and both arms cannot recover a penny more than a patient who lost only one arm or only one leg.

Tort reformers have argued that placing a “cap” on the amount of compensation a patient can receive will reduce the number of claims, and also reduce the costs of healthcare in our country. However, research by groups including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office has shown that health care costs have not been reduced as a result of tort reform.  Additionally, the number of claims has not decreased, either.

Ultimately, instead of reforming medical malpractice laws, the better way to reduce the number of claims while also improving patient safety is by examining the cause of these preventable medical errors and taking action to prevent them from happening in the future. In reality, a hefty damage award is the only way to convince doctors and hospitals to accept responsibilty for their mistakes, and to acknowledge that corrective action is necessary.

Source:, “Big malpractice awards don’t increase medical costs,” Steve Cohen, Aug. 27, 2013