- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS — TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida voters this month approved a three-strikes law unlike any other state’s — a measure aimed not at killers and thieves but at doctors who mess up.

The newly approved amendment to the Florida Constitution automatically would revoke the medical license of any doctor hit with three malpractice judgments. The law is backed by doctors’ foremost antagonists — lawyers — and the ramifications could be huge.

Legal experts say the measure could lead to a flood of malpractice suits. Doctors say it will scare some physicians away from Florida while forcing others to reach quick malpractice settlements to avoid a “strike” against them.

“It has branded the state as probably the most unfriendly state for physicians,” said Robert Yelverton, a Tampa doctor.

The three-strikes law is just one salvo in a fierce battle between doctors and trial lawyers that is playing out across the country. While several states have taken steps to limit malpractice awards, the fight is especially intense in Florida, where the cost of malpractice insurance is higher than in most states.

Doctors this year put their own measure on the ballot that limits how much of a malpractice award an attorney can take as a fee. There are already such limits, but the amendment, which also passed, further reduces the lawyer’s percentage.

Doctors contend that with less chance for a big payday, lawyers will be more selective about which cases they take and perhaps will avoid frivolous ones.

Lance Block, a lawyer who makes his living mostly by representing malpractice victims, said the doctors’ campaign to limit attorney fees was motivated purely by enmity.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the purpose of this amendment is to drive lawyers away from medical-negligence cases,” Mr. Block said.

Lester Brickman, a professor of legal ethics at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in New York, said the lawyers “trumped the doctors” with the three-strikes amendment, because lawyers will rush to sue in hopes that doctors will settle to avoid a “strike” on their record.

“You’ll see hundreds of these claims,” Mr. Brickman said. “In the next 10 years, virtually every doctor in the state of Florida will have been sued.”

The three-strikes law has yet to take effect. It was put on hold by a judge who said the Legislature needs to spell out just how it will work.

The number of doctors who would have their licenses revoked by the three-strikes rule is small, perhaps a dozen or so at the most, experts say. Florida has just under 30,000 active doctors.

Jay Wolfson, a professor of health law at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, has watched with frustration the back-and-forth between doctors and lawyers.

Mr. Wolfson said the three-strikes amendment is like many other efforts to fix the medical-malpractice situation: “It doesn’t do a darn thing to protect patients from the very small number of bad doctors.”

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