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Monday, June 14, 2004

Medical Malpractice battle gets personal

Medical-malpractice battle gets personal Some doctors refuse to treat attorneys
By Laura Parker

There are 73,084 working lawyers in Texas. Selina Leewright never thought that being married to one would cost her her job.

But that's why Leewright, a nurse, was fired last summer by Good Shepherd Medical Center in the East Texas city of Longview. In dismissing her, hospital officials praised her nursing skills as ''fantastic.'' But they told her that because her husband, Marty, worked at a law firm that does medical-malpractice litigation, the hospital could not continue to employ her. ''I was dumbfounded,'' Leewright says. ''They just assumed that my husband does medical malpractice, which he doesn't at all.''

Leewright's firing was a measure of how toxic the battle over medical-malpractice lawsuits has become. Hospital administrators and doctors across the nation, furious over what they see as waves of frivolous lawsuits that have driven up malpractice insurance costs, are striking back against lawyers with hardball tactics that, in some cases, are raising ethical questions.

Some doctors are refusing medical treatment to lawyers, their families and their employees except in emergencies. Professional medical societies are trying to silence their peers by discouraging doctors from testifying as expert witnesses on behalf of plaintiffs. And a New Jersey doctor who supported malpractice legislation that his colleagues opposed was ousted from his hospital post.

While sharing their peers' anger over malpractice lawsuits, some doctors see such tactics -- particularly the refusal of treatment -- as contrary to the Hippocratic oath, in which new doctors acknowledge ''special obligations to all my fellow human beings.''

But Chris Hawk, a surgeon in Charleston, S.C., says the notion of refusing treatment to malpractice lawyers, their family members and associates not only is justified, it's necessary. ''This idea may be repulsive,'' Hawk says. ''It's hardball. But it's ethical.''

Hawk, 57, says that a doctor's ethical obligation to treat patients applies only to emergency care. ''Physicians are not bound to treat everybody who walks through their door,'' he says.

Doctors and lawyers long have been at odds over malpractice litigation. But soaring malpractice-insurance premiums, which hit doctors in high-risk specialties such as neurosurgery and obstetrics particularly hard, have fueled the debate. For doctors who blame the increases in their premiums on unwarranted lawsuits and large jury awards, the solution is clear: Overhaul the nation's civil-litigation system, starting with limits on what jurors can award in damages.

Malpractice lawyers, led by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, counter that rising premiums have more to do with the insurance industry than jury awards. They say tighter regulation of the industry is needed.

The lawyers say that stifling malpractice litigation could deny Americans some of their rights to seek redress in court when doctors make mistakes.