Record medical malpractice verdict should have little impact

Nov 11, 2011

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Recently a Cheyenne jury awarded a nine million dollar judgment against Campbell County Memorial Hospital and Doctor Brian Cullison in a medical malpractice case.  It is easily the highest award in state history and news of the verdict spread quickly across both the medical and legal community.  Some wonder if this would lead to increased medical malpractice insurance premiums and new calls for the state to cap damages in medical malpractice cases. 

BOB BECK: Here are the facts of the case.  In December of 2008, 51 year old Oil field worker Louis Prager was rushed to Campbell County Memorial Hospital after being involved on a rollover accident.  He was wearing a neck brace and was placed on a backboard.  Dr. Brian Cullison was assigned to his care and eventually released Prager.  Prager’s attorney Tom Metier says Cullison made a critical decision.

TOM METIER: Prager ended up without having x-rays of his neck and without a physical exam of his neck.  Was released from the hospital by Dr. Cullison after being assured that he was just fine and had no broken bones.  When in fact he had multiple fractures of the cervical spine in his neck.

BECK: Prager developed paralysis and was returned to the hospital for emergency surgery.  But Metier says it was too late and Prager now has permanent paralysis.

METIER: Is unable to work and has a constant pain condition, which is going to require the implantation of a neuro-stimulator to try and fight the pain.  So he has really been relegated to having to stay in his home day after day.

BECK: The Cheyenne jury ruled against the hospital and Dr. Cullison and awarded Prager $9 million dollars.  Most believe that the previous record award for a medical malpractice case was $1.5 million dollars. 

Inside the Cheyenne Regional Medical center is the office of Doctor Robert Monger.  Monger is no stranger to Medical Malpractice discussions having lobbied in favor of capping damages in these cases for years. 

ROBERT MONGER:  I think people need to make the connection between jackpot juries like this and the cost of health insurance.  Doctors in Wyoming pay about three times as much for malpractice insurance as do doctors in any other state.  And those costs get passed along to the consumer and that is why health care costs so much.  I think people out to be aware of that and make that connection.”

BECK: Monger says the nine million dollar judgment will also push doctors to order more and probably unnecessary tests that will also drive up costs. In 2004, Wyoming voters rejected changing the constitution to allow caps.   He says it is time to revisit the issue.

The Wyoming Hospital Association’s Dan Perdue says his organization is taking a wait and see approach, but he says the verdict has their attention.  In Wyoming, more doctors are leaving smaller practices in favor of working for hospitals.  Perdue says the concern is that hospitals might be viewed as having deeper pockets and so they may be more of a target in malpractice cases than in the past.  For that reason, he agrees with Monger that costs could go up.

DAN PERDUE: If there is that possibility of having that large verdict, yes that could increase the amount of defensive medicine that is already being practiced in the state.

BECK: Perdue says hospitals are also picking up the malpractice insurance tab for their doctors and there is a slight concern that those rates will go up.  But according to Garth Boreczky of Willis of Wyoming, they don’t have anything to worry about yet.  Willis oversees a lot of the medical malpractice insurance in the state and points out something interesting.  Despite Wyoming not having caps on damages, medical malpractice insurance rates for doctors has actually been going down the last three years due to better competition.  And while this verdict got insurance companies attention, he says they see this as something out of the ordinary that shouldn’t impact malpractice rates at all.

GARTH BORECZKY: In the overall number of claims that occur, this is one out of several hundred that went in the wrong direction.  And most cases are settled or fought in court and the malpractice industry has a pretty high success rate.  But there is often once in awhile something that will slip through and this is one of those cases.

BECK: And Cheyenne Attorney Robert Teideken makes a similar point.  He is a veteran Wyoming Civil attorney who frequently handles such cases.  And he gets irritated when people focus on a rare high verdict.

ROBERT TEIDEKEN: Two blocks away from the federal courthouse where the verdict you are asking me about occurred, there was a defense verdict in a medical malpractice case the next week.  We never hear about those.  We are willing to judge a jury in this 9-million dollar verdict and ask oh my goodness what happened, but apparently the jury that issued the finding of no violation of the standard of care, must have done their job appropriately. 

BECK: Teideken says will always oppose caps, mainly because victims need the ability to recover damages and pay for unforeseen costs that frequently increase over time.

Governor Matt Mead says while the verdict got his attention, he doubts one case will require major changes.  He says his office will monitor malpractice insurance costs in Wyoming and try to address the situation if it becomes a problem.  The bottom line, while medical providers would be interested in having lawmakers re-look at capping damages most think there is no reason to overreact to one verdict.