Fighting Back
Doctors Seek New Remedy
to Fight Frivolous Lawsuits

Doctors, troubled by a rising tide of seemingly groundless malpractice lawsuits, are looking for a way to fight back. State Rep. Juan Hinojosa may have the remedy. At a Feb. 8 Capitol news conference, Hinojosa asked the legislature to allow doctors to sue to regain their reputation.

AP/Wide World Photos

In his 18 years of practice McAllen heart surgeon Norman Hetzler had never been sued. That changed two years ago when he was hit with eight malpractice suits in rapid succession.

Seven of the eight patients who sued Hetzler did well after surgery, and all eight cases were either dropped or dismissed, which was hardly a consolation.

With his reputation in taters and his malpractice premiums skyrocketing, Hetzler decided it was time to leave the Rio Grande Valley. He closed his practice and moved to Pennsylvania to open a cardiac care center.

Hetzler is just one of many Texas doctors who have found themselves in a lawsuit war zone.

To stem a rising tide of frivolous malpractice lawsuits, state Rep. Juan Hinojosa wants to allow doctors and hospitals to counter sue those who initiate groundless legal action.

Doctors have been sued by patients they never saw and by patients that never gave a lawyer authorization to file a lawsuit, said Hinojosa at a Feb. 8 Capitol press conference.

Another Valley physician, cardiologist Dr. Hector Urrutia, was sued after a patient died from surgical complications. At the time of the patient’s surgery and death, Dr. Urrutia was a hospitalized patient. Despite being informed that Dr. Urrutia could have had no role in causing the patient’s death, the judge refused to dismiss the lawsuit. The plaintiff’s own expert witness testified Dr. Urrutia committed no malpractice. Nevertheless, the plaintiff’s lawyer refused to drop the case.

Rep. Hinojosa’s proposed legislation would remedy cases like this.

A doctor is left with two choices when he becomes the target of a lawsuit, said Hinojosa. He can fight the lawsuit and spend weeks in court, away from patients, or he can settle the case. Either way, the doctor’s professional reputation is compromised.

“I want to preserve access to health care services, and groundless lawsuits make it difficult for patients to get the care they need,” Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa’s proposal would create grounds for a counterclaim against an attorney or individual who filed a malpractice claim in bad faith.
It was felt that the Legislature fixed the problem of junk malpractice lawsuits in 1995 with the passage of a cost bond and expert witness requirement. In the next two years malpractice filings in Texas declined. However, in 1998 lawsuits against doctors began to rise and have now reached unprecedented proportions.

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Bad faith means acting with reckless disregard as to whether reasonable grounds exist for the original lawsuit.

While lawsuits against doctors are on the rise statewide, court observers say the Rio Grande Valley has become a hotbed of junk lawsuits.

Dr. Jim Rohack, president of the Texas Medical Association, called it an “awful plague,” claiming some areas of the state have become “lawsuit war zones.”

“It is only fair that patients be made whole if they have been injured,” said Dr. Rohack. “Likewise, it is only fair that unjustly sued doctors be able to restore their good reputation and regain the trust of their patients.”

Referring to the increasing number of lawsuits, Rohack said,” Nowhere is this more evident and dramatic than in the Rio Grande Valley, where the entire medical community is being held hostage to an unprecedented and unchecked barrage of reckless and malicious lawsuits.”

The nonprofit Texas Medical Liability Trust, which insures most of the Valley doctors, reported that the frequency of lawsuits in the Valley is 70 percent higher than in the rest of the state.
Today, on average, every Valley doctor has 1.7 claims field against him or her.

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Jon Opelt, Houston director of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said filings of frivolous lawsuits are at an all-time high. Opelt said that one in four Valley doctors had a malpractice claim filed against them in 1997 and in two years the ratio of claims per physician had jumped 800 percent.

“The business of suing first and investigating later has to stop,” he said.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

2500 City West Boulevard, Suite 300 • Houston, Texas 77042
E-mail: sosueme@ • Administrative: (713) 267-2302 • Fax: (713) 267-2267