Posted on Jan 16, 2008
SJC decision could further chill medical practice
In a split ruling stemming from a fatal accident, the state Supreme Judicial Court has opened the door to a huge increase in medical liability lawsuits, a result that is apt to raise the cost of medical treatment while undermining the quality of care.
Medical malpractice laws properly hold physicians responsible for mistakes that harm their patients and/or causes pain and suffering. While vulnerable to abuse, that standard of accountability has a net positive effect on the quality of patient care.
On Monday, the Supreme Judicial Court reinstated a lawsuit against a doctor who was treating a 75-year-old cancer patient whose car struck and killed a 10-year-old boy in 2002. The man, who died later that year, had finished his course of chemotherapy but was taking medicine for high blood pressure and other conditions, the Associated Press reported, and the lawyer for the boy’s family contended the physician should have known the man’s medicine created a dangerous situation.
In reversing the superior court’s dismissal of the lawsuit, the SJC did not rule on the validity of the family’s claims. However, it did allow the case to go forward — in effect opening a whole new field of medical liability law that is ripe for exploitation.
Dissenting from the ruling, Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall emphasized the “sweeping” change it would usher in, citing its chilling effect on medical practice: “The physician would be forever looking over his shoulder.”
Indeed, making doctors legally liable not only for their treatment of their patients, but also for an extended chain of events over which they have no control, will certainly change the way physicians treat their patients, and certainly not for the better. Helpful medicines that might have side effects may not be prescribed. Costly tests may be ordered not because they are needed but to provide legal cover for the physician in case of a lawsuit.
In creating a whole new area of medical liability litigation, the court majority has set in motion changes that will ill-serve patients and drive up the cost of health care for everyone.