- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

There's lots of talk about "under-served" communities and the "crisis" of health care in America, but few people realize that much of the suffering affecting low-income communities, especially in the rural South, is attributable to excessive lawyering, which drives up costs and drives out doctors. Mississippi, for example, has consistently ranked near the bottom in both health care and education, according to federal government data, yet ranks consistently at the top when it comes to outrageous lawsuits.

In the state's Jefferson County, there are only about 9,740 residents but the number of lawsuits filed in 1999 numbered 10,000. A year later, in 2000, the number of plaintiffs on the docket increased to 27,000, or nearly three times the number of residents.

One consequence of this has been a near-biblical exodus of medical professionals, who fear being sued into the poorhouse by ambulance-chasing lawyers. Family practitioners and gynecologists, the most likely to be sued, have been particularly affected. The Mississippi State Medical Association estimates that as many as 10 percent of its members may flee the state as a result of the malpractice litigation, and many towns in the state now find that there are no doctors willing to deliver babies at all because of the threat of lawsuits. The president of the Mississippi State Medical Association has been quoted as saying that if you are an expectant mother living in one of these under-served areas, "You'd better have a full tank of gas."

So why are rural enclaves such a lawyer's Mecca? Demographics have a lot to do with it. In Jefferson County, for example, about half of the people live below the poverty line, and less than half of those serving on juries have finished high school. Yet these jurors are being asked time and time again to weigh the most complex medical and scientific problems of our day. Not surprisingly, the juries in these cases often come up with verdicts that are diametrically opposed to the recommendations of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the most learned medical and scientific minds of our time. In one recent case, the jury awarded 10 plaintiffs a combined $100 million even though the 13 local physicians who treated them testified that the drug in question did not cause them any harm. Clearly, something is out of whack.

Similar problems exist in other rural states such as West Virginia where it's often easier for lawyers to secure juries that statistically are less affluent and less educated and therefore less able to weigh complex medical evidence and, as a result, more likely to be swayed by the rhetoric of plaintiffs attorneys. In this way, outrageous legal tactics and the enormous damage awards that rain down as a result are not well-publicized until after the fact.

Federal appellate judges, who often review these cases as they move up the food chain, must look at the broader picture when they see verdicts coming out of rural states such as Mississippi and West Virginia. Clearly, we are facing a situation where the application of justice in these states is often tainted, and where its after-effects are harming not just the residents of these states, but all the citizens of this country who crave untainted justice.


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