The state of Texas has passed some of the most extreme tort reform laws in the nation. As a result, Texas hospitals are unlikely to be sued for what may be seen as “minor” breaches of protocol such as violations of their infection control policies. This creates an environment where there is a lack of accountability on the part of hospitals and other healthcare providers that could lead to serious repercussions.
In the recent case of Ebola transmission at a Texas hospital, the deficiencies of this system are becoming apparent. Could the lack of strict medical protocols and infection control policies be due to the tort reform policies of this state?
What Is Tort Reform?
A “tort” is a violation of civil law. Unlike a criminal action, torts are addressed through civil lawsuits that pay money damages to the victims, or their familes. For example, if you injure someone in a car or truck accident, that victim may have the right to demand payment of his or her medical expenses, lost wages and a sum to compensation for pain and suffering for their injuries.
In the case of medical malpractice claims, a lawsuit is aimed at two things: collecting money damages, compensation, for the victim and motivating the healthcare professional to change the way he or she conducts business in order to prevent the medical mishap from injuring others. In other words, a medical malpractice lawsuit should, if it is successful, result in a change in the medical professional practice itself that prevents others from undergoing future pain and suffering.
However, when tort reform is put into place, it often has quite the opposite effect. Tort reform is often hailed as a way to curb alleged “runaway juries” and put a stop to disproportionate awards, but in reality the most common effect of tort reform is to allow those who commit torts to have greater latitude in harming others and to give victims fewer rights to recover damages.
How Does Tort Reform Affect Medical Malpractice?
Tort reform often limits the amount a victim can collect from a doctor or hospital, thereby encouraging healthcare professionals and systems to take greater risks. For a hospital interested in “the bottom line,” tort reform can be a blessing as it limits the ultimate amount to be paid out in any lawsuit. Hospitals may well believe that they can cut corners and save millions of dollars given the slight risk that they may be sued because of caps or limitations on the amount of money a jury can award.
In addition, tort reform has a chilling effect on the motivation that others have to file lawsuits in the first place. When a victim knows that he or she may spend years trying to collect a relatively small amount of money, it is not uncommon for the victim to simply give up.
Fewer lawyers are willing to take on lawsuits that may drag on interminably without the promise of a payout at the end. Therefore, tort reform not only limits the amount that can be collected from malpractice cases but also the number of these cases that even make it to the courthouse to be filed.
What Can Be Done to Balance Patient Needs with Healthcare Industry Needs?
Unfortunately, one of the biggest concerns with tort reform is that it could encourage hospitals and doctors to take risks. The recent Ebola scare at a Texas hospital was blamed on nurses failing to follow protocol; what may have actually been the case, however, was not the fault of the nurses but the system under which they work. It is very possible that in a healthcare system that discourages tort actions has as its end result substandard care including poor infection control measures which leaves nurses and patients at risk when they encounter a serious problem, like Ebola.
Ultimately, whether tort reform is in place or not, it is up to the victim to take action whenever possible. By filing lawsuits against those who have committed medical malpractice, we continue to hold them accountable in the only way possible: by forcing them to be responsible for their lack of safety and concern about patients.