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The legislative package of the American Medical Association aimed at limiting suits against doctors and hospitals has been unusually successful this year. Parts of it passed in more state legislatures in 2003 than in all previous years combined. But the states jumping aboard the medical liability “tort reform” bandwagon are learning what others already knew: As lawyers rush to beat deadlines, the legislation causes a surge in the suits that it was designed to stop. Seven states — Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia — have just adopted some of the tort law changes pushed by organized medicine. Most have gone into effect since mid-August. Interviews with court officials and news accounts suggest that attorneys in those states have been filing all the suits they can before the deadline. In Houston, for example, Charles Bacarisse, clerk of the district court in Harris County, reported a 500 percent increase in the number of civil suit filings, some 2700 in the weeks before Sept. 1, when the new Texas laws became effective. Texas newspapers reported similar surges in Dallas and Corpus Christi, as did the media in Little Rock, AK; Orlando, FL; Charleston, WV; and Oklahoma City. In the long run, plaintiffs lawyers predict, the legislation will reduce the number of suits filed but increase the likelihood that a suit filed will ultimately be tried, not settled. A rush to the courthouse has been the experience in Mississippi and Nevada, which adopted parts of the doctors’ package in 2002, to the frustration of some supporters. “There certainly has not been, to this point, any positive reaction that we have seen from the passage of this law,” said Larry Matheis, executive director of the Nevada State Medical Association in Reno, NV. He predicted an increase in the cost of malpractice insurance that his state’s law was designed to curtail. “What we expect to see now, probably, is a new round of rate increases based on frequency of claims,” he said. More medical negligence actions were filed in the 3 months after Oct. 1, 2002, when Nevada’s damage caps went into effect, than in any previous full year. For all of 2001, 372 med-mal suits were filed, compared with 437 from October to December 2002. This year, 546 medical negligence suits were filed through August. Matheis said he should not have been surprised at the surge in new filings. California experienced the same thing when, in 1975, it became the first state that passed such legislation, called the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA). Mark Ballard is a reporter with the National Law Journal , an affiliate of Law Journal Newsletters. To subscribe to the monthly newsletter “Medical Malpractice Law & Strategy,” click here.

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