Doctors say legal clouds still looming

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 8, 2002

NATCHEZ &045;&045; A favorable ruling for a Natchez pediatrician in a malpractice lawsuit two weeks ago pleased the area’s medical professionals. However, the unfavorable legal climate in Mississippi remains, doctors and others in the community say.

&uot;If this case took a Jefferson County jury only 25 minutes to decide, how much truth was there in the first place and why was it allowed to go on for so long,&uot; said Dr. Tom Weed, a Natchez surgeon.

On June 27, a jury unanimously agreed that Dr. Brian Stretch acted properly in treating patient Roderick Frye in 1997 for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

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Jack Houghton, administrator at Natchez Regional Medical Center, said everyone in the medical community had watched the case with concern.

&uot;A significant number of people believe this case should never have gone to trial,&uot; Houghton said. &uot;I’m very pleased it was resolved without taking this very questionable case through the appeal process.&uot;

Still, the average person does not know how much time and how much money it took to be involved in a lawsuit like that, Weed said.

&uot;It probably was $30,000 to $50,000 for the defense costs alone. And that doesn’t include time the doctor has to spend away from his practice.&uot;

Doctors are quick to point out that problems of an overly litigious climate in the state are not centered just on the medical profession. Weed and other doctors have pointed out that lawsuits against businesses and industries also are on the rise.

Still, medical cases have been in the spotlight, and the governor’s 26-member Joint Legislative Study Committee on Civil Justice has heard many hours of testimony from members of the medical profession.

Dr. Kenneth Stubbs, a Natchez internist who has been a leader among doctors to lobby for tort reform, said earlier this week the

committee studying tort reform questions was shocked by testimony from Bay Springs physician Dr. Keith Lay Jr.

&uot;He told them that two members of the governor’s committee had suits against him,&uot; Stubbs said.

In a write-up of the legislative committee meeting in the July edition of the Mississippi State Medical Association newsletter, Lay is quoted as saying he had received notice that day that he was being sued for prescribing an FDA-approved medication and that the lawyer for the plaintiff was on the committee before him.

&uot;And he is not the only member of the study committee who has sued me,&uot; Dr. Lay testified.

He identified the two members as state Reps. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto and Ed Blackmon of Canton.

That medical malpractice lawsuits are increasing is not in question. Statistics collected by the MSMA show that in the month of May 2002 more lawsuits were filed against doctors than in the first six months of 2001.

Statistics also show emergency situations exist in some parts of the state, where doctors are not available to deliver babies, perform neurosurgery or provide other types of critical medical care because doctors who had provided those services could not get medical malpractice insurance.

Weed said a system must be in place to compensate injured parties. However, he believes there is a more efficient way to do that than the years spent in preparing for lawsuits such as the one ending June 27 in Jefferson County.

&uot;My idea is a no-fault insurance fund and true experts deciding whether wrong has been done,&uot; Weed said. &uot;You could have doctors and hospitals paying into a pool that would provide that kind of fund.&uot;

Houghton said that idea has worked in other places and could work in Mississippi. &uot;We can write the guidelines to make it right in Mississippi,&uot; he said, going on to say that some in the state do not believe the review panel works well.

Weed said the review board idea would divert big dollars from the insurance companies and from the legal profession.

&uot;The greatest injustice of the present system is the tiny percentage of money expended that goes to an injured party,&uot; Weed said.