Malpractice, Terminal Patients, and Cause in Fact

By Alex Stein

Any person interested in medical malpractice or torts in general must read the Missouri Supreme Court’s recent decision, Mickels v. Danrad, 486 S.W.3d 327 (Mo. 2016). This decision involved a physician who negligently failed to diagnose the presence of a malignant brain tumor, from which the patient was doomed to die. The patient first saw the physician when he experienced numbness, blurred vision, and headaches. The physician sent the patient to an MRI scan, which he subsequently reviewed but made no diagnosis. Eleven weeks later, the patient arrived at a hospital in an altered mental state and underwent a CT scan of his brain, which showed a malignant and incurable tumor. Four months later, the patient died of that tumor. According to patient’s oncologist – who testified as a witness in a subsequent malpractice trial – the tumor was incurable when the patient first saw the physician. The plaintiffs offered no evidence controverting that testimony. Continue reading

Medical Malpractice: The New Wave of Constitutional Attacks on Damage Caps

By Alex Stein

About forty-five years ago, tort reforms took off and states have started capping compensation awards for victims of medical malpractice. The plaintiffs bar countered this initiative by raising different constitutional challenges against caps. Those challenges alluded to equal protection, due process, separation of powers, and the general right to a jury trial. Some state courts have rejected those challenges, while other courts have struck the caps down for being unconstitutional. For discussion and the list of representative cases, see Alex Stein, Toward a Theory of Medical Malpractice, 97 Iowa L. Rev. 1201, 1253-54 (2012).

Courts’ decisions in favor and against the caps juxtaposed the victim’s entitlement to remedy against society’s interest in reducing doctors’ compensation burden and cost of liability insurance. Courts that gave precedence to the latter interest did so in the hopes to contain the cost of medical care for patients. The “trickle down” theory underlying these hopes has been questioned on empirical and doctrinal grounds. See Tom Baker, The Medical Malpractice Myth 1-21 (2005) (demonstrating that claims linking the cost of medical care to medical-malpractice liability are empirically unfounded and calling them an “urban legend”) and Stein, id. at 1247-56 (showing that, as a doctrinal matter, doctors can be found responsible for patients’ injuries only in extreme cases and that a rational physician should care more about being identified and reported to the federal databank as a malpractitioner than about how much she will pay if found liable). The Florida Supreme Court has rejected that theory in a recent decision, McCall v. United States, 134 So.3d 894 (Fla. 2014), that relied (inter alia) on Tom Baker’s work. For my discussion of this landmark decision, see here.

For obvious reasons, plaintiffs’ attorneys are loath to depend on such tradeoffs and prefer to base their claims on constitutional rights that are not subject to balancing.  Continue reading

Abortion Derangement Syndrome, Missouri Edition

Flickr/Creative Commons—Nicola

Flickr/Creative Commons—Nicola

By Gregory M. Lipper

Although the biggest abortion-related news last week came from the U.S. Supreme Court, a Missouri state senator (turned Attorney General candidate) took the prize for most bizarre.

Senator Kurt Schaefer—chairman of the Missouri Senate’s interim “Committee on the Sanctity of Life”—wrote a stern letter to the University of Missouri; he suggested that state law prohibited a Ph.D student from researching the effects of Missouri’s mandatory 72-hour waiting period for women who want to have an abortion. The law he cited provides, “It shall be unlawful for any public funds to be expended for the purpose of performing or assisting an abortion, not necessary to save the life of the mother, or for the purpose of encouraging or counseling a woman to have an abortion not necessary to save her life.”

This farfetched attempt to censor academic research on the effects of government policy raises a pair of legal issues (and one psychological observation…).

First, Senator Schaefer’s interpretation of the statute is, to put it mildly, a stretch. The student isn’t going to be “performing or assisting an abortion”; she’s going to be studying abortion—more precisely, the 72 hours between when a woman seeks an abortion and is allowed to have an abortion.

Continue reading