Texas Laws Hinder Medical Malpractice Lawsuits
The Texas Tribune recently reported a troubling case of medical malpractice. Connie Spears went to a Christus Santa Rosa hospital emergency room in 2010, with serious leg pain; she told the hospital staff about her history of blood clots, but they sent her home with a much lighter diagnosis. A few days later, Spears was brought by ambulance to a different hospital: she was swollen and delusional, and doctors discovered a severe clot and extensive tissue damage. To save her life, they amputated both of her legs above the knee.
Almost three years after all this, Ms. Spears says she is a victim not of both medical mistake and Texas’ tort reform laws, which are hindering her malpractice suit. In 2003, lawmakers in Texas passed legislation that caps medical malpractice non-economic damages at $250,000, and set a “willful and wanton” negligence standard (of intentional harm to patients) for emergency care. The law also requires plaintiffs to find a practicing or teaching physician in the same medical specialty as the defendant, to serve as an expert witness and to show evidence of negligence before a trial. Under this new rule, if plaintiffs can’t produce sufficient expert reports inside 120 days of filing their cases, they’re liable for the defendants’ legal fees.
Spears told the Tribune that these laws blocked her from finding a malpractice lawyer, and forced a judge to order her to pay thousands of dollars to cover some defendants’ legal bills. Her attorneys will file a motion that challenges the laws’ constitutionality. “How can that law be?” Spears asked. “Maybe the law was too loose before, but they went way too far the other way.” Several lawyers turned Spears’ case down, afraid it didn’t meet Texas’ revised negligence standards; Justin Williams, the lawyer who eventually took her case, said: “Her life has basically been ruined by all of this, and there was just no way I could turn her down.”
Unfortunately, Spears’ case collapsed under the new expert-witness rules; the first attempt at an expert-witness report failed to identify the proper defendants, and William was unable to find another expert witness in a time frame that would satisfy Texas’ requirements. A spokeswoman for Christus Santa Rosa said the hospital was not pursuing compensation for its legal fees out of sympathy for Spears—but other defendants in her case are, and Spears is afraid she and her husband, who is currently unemployed, will lose their home.
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