Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Oklahoma legislature enacts bill (possible without realizing it) that may make it the first state to impose a "loser pays" rule in civil litigation

Above the Law is reporting that the Oklahoma legislature recently enacted a bill, now on its way to the Governor's signature, that may make the state the first American jurisdiction to impose a "loser-pays" rule in litigation.

The key provision, hidden in a bill supposedly about the rights of child abuse victims, lists a number of different types of civil claims, including torts, and holds that "[i]n any action brought . . . the court shall award court costs and reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party."

One reason American jurisdictions have rejected this approach is that it discourages possible claimants from pursuing their claims for fear that they may end up with more debt.  Instead, the use of contingency fees provides a way for claimants to get access to representation and if the claim does not work it is the lawyer, who is more likely in a better position to take the loss, who might be financially affected by it.

Yet, "tort reformers" have always advocated for a 'loser pays' approach arguing it would eliminate frivolous lawsuits, although, anyone who knows anything about tort reform knows that the goal is not to get rid of frivolous lawsuits but to discourage valid ones.

Maybe, now that someone realized what is really in the bill, the Governor can be convinced not to sign it.  Otherwise, litigation will be very different in Oklahoma than in the rest of the US in the near future.

Monday, May 8, 2017

More bad news for victims of medical malpratice; more tort reform bills, this time in Iowa -- UPDATED

For almost two months now all my posts have been about medical malpractice reform bills.  Today's update comes from Iowa where the state Senate has passed a tort reform bill (Senate File 465) which  includes provisions capping awards for non-economic damages at $250,000, requiring a "certificate of merit" to screen out litigation and establishing standards for expert witnesses.  There is more on the story here.

Apparently, the reforms were based on the discredited argument that they are needed to either keep doctors from leaving the jurisdiction or to attract doctors to the jurisdiction, an argument that is not supported by available empirical evidence.   Also, the provision regarding "certificates of merit," as usual, was supported by the argument that it is a good way to screen out frivolous litigation.  And, again, this argument is misleading because even though it may have that effect, the real goal of the provision is to make it more difficult for plaintiffs to be able to bring non-frivolous litigation.  There are plenty of other mechanisms in place already that prevent frivolous litigation.

UPDATE (4-15-17):  The TortsProf blog is reporting that the Iowa House has now passed the med mal reform bill, but fortunately, it was amended so it is not as bad as originally proposed.  The amendment eliminated the "hard cap" and created an exception that would allow juries to make awards of more than $250,000 in cases of “substantial or permanent loss or impairment of bodily functions and substantial disfigurement.”  Because of the this amendment, the House bill and the Senate bill will have to be reconciled.

UPDATE (4/28/17):  The Senate passed a new bill adopting the House's version.  The bill now goes to the governor who is expected to sign it.  More on the story here.

UPDATE (5/8/17):   Last Friday, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed into law a bill for med mal cases requiring a certificate of merit and capping non-economic damages at $250,000 except in cases involving permanent impairment, disfigurement, or death.  The Des Moines Register has the story.  (Thanks to the TortsProf blog for this update.)

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

New England Journal of Medicine warns that med mal reform efforts will not likely affect cost of healthcare

Those of you who follow the debate on medical malpractice reform already know this, but it is worth repeating.  The goal of med mal reform efforts is to make it difficult for victims to be able to recover for their injuries, and have very little to do with the cost of healthcare.  This has been the conclusion of multiple studies over the years, and today the New England Journal of Medicine is again adding its voice to the debate.  It is warning that proposed tort reform efforts introduced by Republican lawmakers would cut deeply into consumers’ rights to pursue medical malpractice lawsuits, and are unlikely do much to lower the cost of healthcare.

I have posted lots of links to numerous studies that reach similar conclusions in the med mal section of this blog.  You can go here and scroll down to find the stories.  For some of those stories go here, here, here, here, here, and here.

For more on the NE Journal of Medicine new article go here.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

US Supreme Court denies cert in ignition switch defects case

Last year, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled against General Motors' argument that it could not be liable for damages caused by ignition-switch defects because the products were made before it formed a new company following Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  For more information on the case go here and scroll down.  This decision was appealed to the Supreme Court and this week it was reported that the Court has refused to hear the appeal.  Now, the currently pending claims against GM will move forward. The claims have been estimated to be worth between $7 billion and $10 billion.

Is a dog a product?

The Abnormal Use blog is reporting on an interesting story about a lawsuit against a Humane Society pet shelter based on the fact that a dog adopted from the agency bit a 15-month old child. What is interesting is that the cause of action is based on product liability principles.  The case apparently argues that the agency failed to warn the Greene’s of the risks of transitioning a dog from a shelter to a home and of a dog’s potential dangerous propensities. 

Although it might seem odd to think of a dog as a product at first - mostly because it is not "made" or "manufactured" - dogs are "things" when it comes to the law.  Most jurisdictions will not grant more than their market value in a claim against someone who kills a pet, for example.  Also, animals or all sorts are bought and sold in the market, and not all as pets.  For this reason, I would not be surprised if there are other cases that consider animals as products in the context of products liability, although I can't say I remember having seen any lately other than cases involving dead animals, aka food for humans.

Yet, I agree with Abnormal Use that there does not seem to be a need to use strict liability to support the claim.  A simple negligence claim for lack of proper warnings would be sufficient. 

If the claim were to be argued as a negligence claim for failure to warn, though, there is another interesting issue looming over the case:  whether the defendant should have warned the consumer that the dog was a pit bull mix.  This opens the door to the debate on whether knowledge that the dog was of a particular specific breed creates a duty to warn - something I have written about before many times.  The generally accepted view is against imposing such a duty, but there are cases that have recognized it and there is credible (at least to me) evidence that suggests the argument has some validity to it.

The case was just filed recently, and my guess is that like most cases it will be settled quietly.  But who knows, maybe it will work its way through the courts and bring up the issues to the forefront again.  We'll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

US Supreme Court agrees to hear case on the Alien Tort Statute to decide whether Corporations can be liable

It has been more than two years since I have posted anything related to the Alien Tort Statute because, well, with the 2013 US Supreme Court decision in Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum the court pretty much made the statute irrelevant.  That case raised the issue of whether the statute could be used to support claims against corporations. However, in a surprising move, the Court asked the parties to brief a different issue (extraterritoriality), and eventually decided the case based only on that issue.  For all the background stories, go to the Alien Tort Statute section of the blog here.

In 2014, the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit decided one case on the ATS holding that  holding that corporations, and not just state actors, can face liability for violations of universal norms under the Alien Tort Statute.  At the time, I thought that case would open the door for a renewed discussion of the issue, but the case did not reach the Supreme Court.

But now the wait is apparently over.  Just a few days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which the issue is precisely whether corporations can be liable under the Alien Tort Statute.  Stay tuned!

For more information and some links on the case (Jesner v. Arab Bank) go here.  For up to date coverage and access to all the documents related to the case go to the SCotUS blog here.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Update on Congress' work on med mal tort reform

Earlier this month, I wrote a note about efforts in Congress to pass tort reform bills that could have seriously negative/damaging effects on the ability of victims of medical malpractice to recover for injuries.  Today, the PopTort has an update here. The article is called "Congress Moving to Protect Doctors Who Abuse and Assault Children."  It sounds like an exaggeration, but if you read the article you'll see why it is not. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education will allow interns to work up to 28 hours without a break

At a time when it is being reported that medical errors is now the third leading cause of deaths in the US, the maximum workday for first-year medical residents just got substantially longer. The group that sets rules for training doctors announced Friday it will be scrapping the 16-hour cap on shifts worked by doctors who have just graduated from medical school.  As of July 1, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education will allow these first-year residents, also known as interns, to work 24 hours without a break — and sometimes as long as 28, if a particular transition between doctors demands it.  NPR has more on the story here.

The Associated Press notes the American Medical Student Association and the Committee of Interns and Residents oppose the change.  Also, Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group has stated that "[s]tudy after study shows that sleep-deprived resident physicians are a danger to themselves, their patients and the public," and that "[i]t's disheartening to see the ACGME cave to pressure from organized medicine and let their misguided wishes trump public health."