“A federal appeals court has shot down a Massachusetts consumer protection case against two doctors, a medical journal and its publisher over an allegedly flawed article cited by defendants in birth-injury medical malpractice cases. That means plaintiffs’ attorneys will have to challenge the article’s validity in each case in which the defense wishes to cite it.” The First Circuit did not reach the issue of constitutional free speech, but upheld a lower court’s ruling that the plaintiff had not shown adequately that expert testimony reliance on the allegedly faulty article had resulted in the loss of the litigation in question. [Sheri Qualters, NLJ] Earlier on A.G. v. Elsevier here.
A plaintiff’s lawyer is suing a medical journal and two doctors for publishing a case report that makes it harder to win some birth-injury lawsuits.
Here are the details, as reported by Sheri Qualters of the National Law Journal. Some newborns are found to be suffering from brachial plexus injury, a type of harm to a child’s shoulder, arm, or hand that in a minority of cases results in permanent disability (so-called Erb’s palsy or a number of related conditions). A large volume of birth-injury litigation goes on as a result, in part because courts have tended to accept the idea that the only medically recognized cause of those conditions in newborns is excessive or traumatic use of physical force by clinicians (“traction”). In 2008, however, the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology published a case report of a delivery in which an infant was found to be suffering such injury although the physician by her own account had not applied any excessive traction during the birth. If instead natural forces of labor could cause the dislocation resulting in the condition, many lawsuits might rest on shakier ground. Since then, defense lawyers have cited the report — by Henry Lerner of Harvard Medical School and Eva Salamon of the Bond Clinic in Winter Park, Fla. — in litigation.
A Boston lawyer who claims to have debunked the Lerner-Salamon case study has proceeded to sue its two authors, Elsevier — which publishes AJOG and many other medical and scientific journals — and Dr. Salamon’s clinic for publishing and refusing to retract it. The damages are said to be $3 million each to two families of infant plaintiffs whose lawsuits did not succeed allegedly because of the case report. The lawsuit invokes a Massachusetts consumer protection law which allows treble damages, and also asks for a court order forbidding the report to be entered as evidence in future litigation. A trial court dismissed the case, in part on the grounds that the plaintiffs had not shown that the article was a material cause of the families’ failure to prevail in the suits. Now the case is on appeal to the First Circuit, where defense lawyers are arguing, inter alia, that if there are weaknesses in the article the remedy for plaintiffs is to introduce evidence to that effect to counter it in trials. “As for its own role, Elsevier argued that applying a state consumer protection law to its published material would violate its free-speech right under the First Amendment.”
First Amendment? Let’s not go to extremes. If we start applying the First Amendment, how are lawyers supposed to silence publications that inconvenience them?
Our “watch what you say about lawyers” tag — which perhaps we should rename as “watch what you say about lawyers or their cases” — is here (cross-posted at Cato at Liberty; & welcome readers from Jesse Walker, Reason, Prof. Bainbridge).
That’s former Obama Administration budget director Peter Orszag’s view [Bloomberg]:
Most of the costs in the U.S. health-care system are incurred in a small number of expensive cases. The top 25 percent of Medicare beneficiaries ranked by cost, for example, account for 85 percent of total spending. And the expenses in those cases are driven significantly by the recommendations that doctors make to pursue one treatment path and not another.
In making these choices, doctors are influenced by various things, including medical-school training, traditions among their peers, financial incentives (which are distorted by fee- for-service payments) and, yes, the medical-malpractice system. Improving the criteria for what constitutes appropriate care could significantly change doctors’ behavior and also save money, recent research by Michael Frakes of Cornell Law School suggests.
The Jacksonville, Fla. paper runs a dramatic photo from a lawyer’s office arising from a medical malpractice lawsuit. White Coat finds evidence that the circumstances of the photo-taking were less than ideally spontaneous [EP Monthly]
New research by Michael Frakes of Cornell: “I estimate a small and statistically insignificant relationship between malpractice forces and two metrics of healthcare quality emphasized by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: avoidable hospitalization rates (reflective of outpatient quality) and inpatient mortality rates for selected medical conditions.” [SSRN]
On July 12 New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer wrote an extensive story about the death of a 12-year-old boy who had been brought to an emergency room with fever and rapid pulse, sent home, and died of septic shock. Lab test results and other indicators of distress allegedly went unheeded, and the boy’s family is represented by Thomas Moore, perhaps the city’s premier medical malpractice lawyer. Some legal blogs had a field day citing Dwyer’s article as an example of flagrant medical malpractice, as they depicted it; other reactions, some gathered in a Dwyer follow-up column, were more mixed.
White Coat, the blog at Emergency Physicians Monthly, has been resistant to the Dwyer-Moore narrative of the case. Its blog posts can be found here,
here, here, and here.