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Medical Malpractice at a Charitable Hospital

On August 6, 2012, Governor Deval Patrick signed into law S.2400, enacting drastic changes to Massachusetts’ health care system in general, and medical malpractice procedures in particular. The goal of the new law was to reduce overall heath care costs, and drafters of the law estimated that it would reduce health care costs by $200 billion over 15 years throughout the Commonwealth.

The changes to medical malpractice law were precipitated by a rise in both the number of medical malpractice lawsuits in the Commonwealth and in the average payout to plaintiffs in these cases. In 2010, Massachusetts reported the 7th highest medical malpractice claim payments in the country, averaging over $484,000 per lawsuit. This, in turn, increased health insurance premiums for all insured individuals.

Regarding medical malpractice, the law requires doctors to disclose mistakes they make in treating patients. Doctors are also allowed to apologize for errors without exposing themselves to lawsuits. In addition, the law also creates a 182-day “cooling off” period during which parties to the dispute can try to settle by exchanging information and allowing the doctor to acknowledge any mistakes without admitting liability for the plaintiff’s injuries.

Finally, the law increases the ceiling on compensation for patients injured by a non-profit hospital from $20,000 to $100,000. This does not include injuries caused by a doctor or a nurse, but by the hospital itself. Injuries caused by an individual doctor, nurse, or hospital staff member are covered by that individual’s malpractice insurance and are not subject to this limitation.

The basic purpose of medical malpractice law is to provide justice for individuals who are injured as a result of negligence on the part of their health care providers. Just like general tort law, medical malpractice litigation spreads the costs of negligence to the party more at fault for the injury, and the party more likely to be able to pay. Health care providers owe a duty of care to their patients, and when they breach that duty, they are liable for injures caused to their patients.

The old $20,000 ceiling on liability was generally seen as insufficient to cover the costs of bringing medical malpractice lawsuits, let alone to compensate victims of medical malpractice for continued treatment, pain and suffering or lost wages, or to compensate families who lost loved ones. In essence, it prevented victims of medical malpractice from receiving their fair share of damages. And this inadequacy was compounded by the fact that most Massachusetts hospitals are considered non-profit organizations. Almost any organization that states as its purpose “care and treatment of the sick” or “the promotion of health care” can qualify as a charitable organization in Massachusetts.

The law limits liability for non-profit hospitals because public policy is seen as best served by conserving limited hospital resources for treating patients rather than paying out high settlements in malpractice cases. With the growing number of malpractice cases, many of which are considered meritless, and with the rising damages awards, public policy calls for some protection for non-profit hospitals so that they can continue to treat patients.

However, as proponents of raising liability to $100,000 argued, many of these “charitable hospitals” are really huge businesses that do not need such a high degree of protection. In fact, Massachusetts is one of few states that still have this “charitable immunity” doctrine in effect, and among those that do, Massachusetts has the lowest cap on liability. Moreover, public policy is equally served by adequately compensating individuals who are injured due to hospital negligence. In one case, where a jury found that the death of a child was caused by a nonprofit hospital’s negligence, the court reduced a $20 million verdict against the nonprofit hospital to just $20,000.

In addition, raising the liability ceiling provides an incentive to hospitals to fix problems that often lead to medical malpractice injuries. Common problems include understaffing nurses, reducing the length of nursing or resident shifts, poor management practices, and keeping facilities up to date.

Thus, the new bill seeks to increase compensation for individuals legitimately injured through medical malpractice, while also discouraging the filing of medical malpractice lawsuits in general. Lawyers, politicians and the medical community joined together to draft this law, aiming to strike a compromise between providing compensation for injured individuals while increasing patient safety and reducing overall health care costs. The Massachusetts Medical Society, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys all expressed support for the new law and issued statements that the law strikes the proper balance between ensuring the viability of charitable hospitals on the one hand, and compensating victims of medical malpractice on the other.

The expert personal injury attorneys at the law offices of Altman & Altman have decades of experience handling medical malpractice cases. We continuously track all the latest trends in medical malpractice law in order to best serve our clients. If you believe you have been injured as a result of hospital negligence or medical malpractice, contact our office today for a free and confidential case consultation. You will meet one on one with one of our expert attorneys who will fully explain your legal rights and options, and how best to proceed with your case. We will work relentlessly to get you the compensation you deserve.

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