Sherry Keller had a routine hysterectomy, but her doctor forgot to stitch up her incision under the staples. While in her doctor’s office for a post-surgical exam, her wound opened up “like a zipper.” A half-hour passed before the doctor returned with help. In the meantime, Sherry went into shock, fainted, and fell off the table. She broke her neck suffering a spinal cord injury that confines her to a wheelchair. You might say she should sue, but what could happen if she does? What kind of award might she get? Well, under a bill passed by the U. S. House of Representatives on March 13 and headed for a vote in the Senate, an award for pain and suffering for a case as outrageous as this might be capped at $250,000.00, the equivalent of about 10 days’ salary for the CEO of one of the nation’s leading liability insurance companies.

There are many more shocking stories like Sherry Keller’s. For instance, there is the former barge captain whose surgeon mistakenly removed a healthy lung rather than a cancerous one; the woman whose jawbone was removed for a cancer she did not have; and the young girl who lost her left hand and both feet after her doctor failed to treat her for blood poisoning, allowing gangrene to spread to her limbs. And who hasn’t heard or read about Jesica Santillan, the seventeen-year old girl who died after surgeons implanted a heart and lung with the wrong blood type. Sadly, cases like these occur everyday throughout our nation, and they are tragedies that could and should be prevented.

A recent analysis of records of complaints of physician malpractice shows that five per cent of our doctors are responsible for 54% of the payouts by the insurance industry on claims of medical malpractice. Yet the solution proposed by the liability insurance industry and its allies in the pharmaceutical industry and in Congress is to place unfair limits on jury awards for pain and suffering. Without the credible threat of fair and reasonable jury awards, there will be precious little left to deter misconduct by careless physicians.

The real reason for the current increases in premiums for medical malpractice insurance is the weakness of the economy which has hurt the industry’s investment earnings. When the economy is strong and earnings are good, premium rates are adjusted downward as insurance companies try to attract new business. Then, when the economy enters a period of recession, insurance companies scramble to cover their losses with heightened premiums. Instead of acknowledging the real causes for high premiums (the industry’s own short-sighted investment strategies and the failure of the medical profession to weed out grossly negligent doctors), insurance companies are asking Congress to make the victims of medical malpractice absorb these losses.

Our state governments must do a better job of disciplining careless doctors. Our hospitals must do better at preventing errors of the kind that needlessly lead to the loss of limbs and lives. 

Sherry Keller and other survivors of medical malpractice went to Washington in February to oppose placing unfair limits on pain and suffering awards for future malpractice victims. However, the bill that caps malpractice awards passed the House of Representatives on March 13, 2003 and is headed to the Senate. We must work together to stop it there. There is no evidence that the proposed legislation will reduce malpractice insurance rates. Clearly, this legislation is designed to discourage ordinary people from going to court to ask for simple justice. How many of us would fight for years to get justice from the courts if victory meant receiving less for our pain and suffering over an entire lifetime than an insurance executive earns in less than two weeks? But the legislation works even more evil than this. It will harm our jury system and erode the faith we have in our fellow citizens to make just and fair decisions based on facts and established legal rights. Why should we give up our cherished rights to satisfy the insurance industry’s hunger for profit? It is outrageous to sacrifice the victims of medical malpractice to increase the profits of big business.

Our rights are being threatened. Call Senators Schumer and Clinton through the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Write to them and visit their local offices. Let’s demand that they stand up for our rights, not for the selfish interests of the insurance industry.