Friday, June 22, 2007

Malpractice lawsuits are lawyer's cup of tea

Jeffrey A. Walker, who made partner at Snyder, Walker & Mann in 2004 at the age of 33, has made a name for himself as an up-and-coming trial defense attorney, winning as lead counsel in a number of complex medical malpractice disputes.

Walker has been fascinated with various aspects of the medical profession ever since his college days, although he opted to pursue a legal career rather than attend medical school. Of particular interest, Walker has handled and tried multiple cases involving cardiology and gastroenterology issues.

His experience is broad in the area of medical malpractice, managing a diverse caseload of medical matters also involving related claims of fraud, elder abuse, premises liability, indemnity and medical devices. In addition, he has handled general liability cases that involve disputes over property ownership, premises liability, catastrophic injury, trucking liability, E&O coverage disputes, regulatory defense, breach of contract and legal malpractice.

Walker graduated from Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles in 1995 with a juris doctorate. In 1992, Walker completed his undergraduate work at the UC Riverside, where he earned a bachelor's degree in economics and a minor in psychology.

Walker is a member of the Association of Southern California Defense Counsel, the Defense Research Institute, the Southern California Association of Healthcare Risk Management and the Professional Liability Underwriting Society. He is also a member of the Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles Bar Associations.

Walker sat down for Six Questions with Business Editor Michael Rappaport this week.

Question: Doctors are spending huge amounts on malpractice insurance. What effect is this having on certain specialties, such as obstetrics?

Answer: Unfortunately, higher insurance premiums are becoming commonplace even for nonspecialized practices.

For higher-risk practices, such as obstetrics, the impact of higher premiums has placed a heavy burden on specialists, leaving those doctors feeling: (1) like they don't want to specialize any longer; (2) that they need to be more selective about where to practice and what patients to accept (which works against higher-risk and HMO patients); and (3) resentful about paying so much to protect themselves.

Q: People seeking tort reform sometimes overestimate the cost of lawsuits on medical care. What is the significance of litigation in the overall picture?

A: Litigation can be costly, burdensome and an extreme deterrent. Litigation is a necessary evil, as most claims can, and should be, challenged through our legal process.

There are premium increases related to claim frequency, reporting mandates to state boards and federal databanks, and "reputation" damage for those in repeated or drawn out litigation.

In turn, litigation leads to fear, fear leads to premature, excessive or unnecessary settlements, and payouts and litigation costs become a focal point for promoting tort reform.

Q: Your mission statement talks about "cost-effective" defense. What do you mean by that?

A: SWM provides a "cost-effective" defense by having a streamlined litigation team assigned to each matter, a working expertise with the medicine, being heavily invested in technology to accomplish tasks faster and with greater precision, and by ensuring that the firm's successes are measured solely by what is in the client's best interest.

We believe in forming partnerships with our clients for every step in their defense, thus developing effective strategies early on in the process, and determining whether cases need to be settled versus tried.

Q: How have people changed as far as their willingness to sue over bad outcomes?

A: It has been my experience that litigation over "bad" outcomes has, and will always be, heightened where one of three scenarios exist.

First, a sense of not understanding what happened and no one willing to answer the tough "what," "how" and "why" questions; second, the grieving process can be so overwhelming that comprehension of the outcome is virtually impossible to fathom; and third, having a sense that none of the providers cares about or acknowledges the loss or bad outcome.

When one or all three exist, the willingness to sue is far greater.

Q: What's the toughest sort of malpractice case for a jury to understand?

A: In my experience, the tougher cases for a jury are those when the emotions or sentiments of a case are far easier to relate to than a technical medical procedure or treatment.

What sounds "reasonable" to a jury years later in retrospect is not always what was necessary, prudent or even recommended years before at the time the care was rendered.

Today's society is far more skeptical, and is much more willing to accept that which is familiar ("that sounds about right") versus what a doctor or expert will testify to is actually done in the medical trenches.

Q: How do we solve the problem of high malpractice insurance costs while still protecting patients from bad doctors?

A: If I had the answer to this question, I could easily claim my seat in Congress. Simply put, there is no clear answer.

Malpractice costs are costly being balanced with supporting our health-care community, offering quality treatment to patients, and trying to weed out the bad apples.

Insurance companies do reward "good" physicians with reduced premiums and rebated renewals. There are also a growing number of high-risk insurance organizations for high-risk doctors, which require the insured to carry high SIRs (self-insured retentions), thus requiring the riskier doctor to pay for some of any judgment or settlement.

These types of retention groups may be a way to contain malpractice costs by segregating those health-care providers deemed to be higher risks.

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