Tort reform push is 'phonus balonus'

President Bush finally has found real weapons of mass destruction right here in America's courts, where trial lawyers systematically destroy our fine MDs by flimflamming gullible jurors with frivolous malpractice claims.
This war is apparently Bush's top domestic priority. It's not the economy, stupid, it's the trial lawyers!
The trouble is, it's phonus balonus. The problem with medical malpractice is ... medical malpractice. Six years ago, the Institute of Medicine itself reported that 98,000 hospital patients die yearly of "preventable mistakes," more than from drunken drivers, breast cancer and AIDS together. The true total was likely higher.
Of course, virtually nothing happens to doctors whose negligence kills or maims hundreds of thousands of patients. There are defrocked priests and disbarred lawyers, but no disgraced titles for docs who lose their licenses: too few to count.
Last week, our "compassionate" president went to Madison, Ill., the so-called "judicial hellhole" of malpractice verdicts, to promote his hustle for a law capping non-economic jury verdicts at $250,000. He paraded a few doctors who said they no longer could practice in Madison, as the verdicts had raised their malpractice insurance sky high.
Bunco artists
Chances are these docs got the same vetting from the White House as Bernard Kerik, but so what? The cons and neocons of the American Tort Reform Association are the bunco artists of our time, and as such fly from facts as Dracula from the cross.
And the facts, as established by the Harvard Medical Practice Study, are: Only 2 percent of patients injured by physician negligence sue. Which means these victimized doctors may be getting away with 98 percent of their malpractice.
I don't call people bunco artists lightly. What tort reformers have done, brilliantly, is to merge frivolous lawsuits into the real thing. They want caps on legitimate injuries caused by negligence. That's alien to American justice.
Frivolous malpractice suits are rare. The reason? They cost too much to file. Trial lawyers finance these cases themselves, with contingent fees -- which the tort reformers would abolish.
The cap -- and this is the real skinny -- would leave young people and the elderly, those without economic damages because they have no incomes -- without recourse to the courts. All they have is pain and suffering, and even without caps, it's difficult to get lawyers.
When my daughter Libby died at 18 in New York Hospital at the hands of inexperienced, overworked and unsupervised doctors, I wouldn't have had lawyers had I not had friends in law and access to the media.
New York is one of a half-dozen states that do not allow bereaved parents and spouses to sue for pain and suffering. Bush would make this national, guaranteeing that at least for kids and old people, doctors and hospitals can kill, if not at will, without care.
X Sidney Zion is a columnist for the New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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