Articles Posted in Court Access

An Oregon Supreme Court ruling issued last week has received remarkably little coverage outside of the specialized legal press, but it deserves much more attention. In the case of Smith v Providence Health & Services (361 Or 456) the court reversed rulings from both the trial and appellate courts, and found that a legal doctrine known as Loss of Chance “is cognizable under Oregon common law.” In doing so, it significantly increased the rights of ordinary Oregonians confronted with failures or negligence on the part of the medical system.

As the Bend Bulletin, one of the few newspapers to have taken note of the case, aptly noted, the ruling means that Oregonians “can bring medical malpractice cases not only when they are injured but also when negligent care denies them a treatment with a potentially better outcome.”

The case revolved around a man “who went to a Hood River emergency room in 2011 concerned that he was having a stroke. Doctors discharged him without ordering an MRI or prescribing clot-busting drugs. By the time an MRI confirmed a stroke a week later (he) had incurred significant brain damage.” Both the article and court’s opinion note that had these precautions been taken there is a one-in-three chance that the plaintiff would have recovered substantially, perhaps even completely, from the stroke.

Last week a jury in St. Louis became the fourth in a year to award substantial damages to a plaintiff who believes that consumer goods giant Johnson & Johnson’s talcum power is linked to ovarian cancer. According to a Bloomberg News report, the Missouri jury awarded the woman $110 million in damages. This follows three jury verdicts of $55 to $72 million in similar cases last year (the company has won one case during the same period, according to Bloomberg). Appeals are expected in all of the cases.

The agency quotes the attorney for the plaintiff in the St. Louis case saying: “Once again we’ve shown that these companies ignored the scientific evidence and continue to deny their responsibilities to the women of America… they chose to put profits over people, spending millions in efforts to manipulate scientific and regulatory scrutiny.” In addition to the millions in damages from J&J the jury also Imerys Talc America, a separate company that manufacturers talc sold under the J&J label, to pay $100,000 in damages.

Bloomberg reports that more than 1000 cases alleging a link between J&J’s talc and ovarian cancer have already been filed. Though J&J is headquartered in New Jersey many of these cases have been filed in Missouri because that state’s laws allow for suits like these to be filed in its courts even when the plaintiff has no connection to the state (last week’s $110 million verdict involved a woman from Virginia). But is it necessary for all these cases to head for the Midwest? Are the product liability laws here in Oregon adequate to address cases like this?

The announcement last week that the federal government will bar most nursing homes and other care facilities from forcing clients to sign care contracts requiring them to settle disputes in arbitration is an enormous victory for ordinary Americans – one that deserved more attention than it received in both the national and local media.

As the New York Times noted: “With its decision, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an agency under (the Department of) Health and Human Services, has restored a fundamental right of millions of elderly Americans across the country: their day in court. It is the most significant overhaul of the agency’s rules governing federal funding of long-term health care facilities in more than two decades.” Because virtually every nursing home and care facility in the country receives funds from either Medicare or Medicaid (and often from both) the rule is, effectively, universal. The rule change was essential to curb the spread of arbitration since a 2015 Supreme Court ruling (DIRECTV v Imburgia) which not only held that arbitration clauses are legal but also threw out state-level bans on the practice.

Obviously a federal law banning forced arbitration clauses can’t be passed in Washington’s present polarized political climate, but with last week’s decision the federal government effectively used the leverage that comes from being the largest single player in our healthcare system to put citizens ahead of corporate profits. The new federal rules effectively overturn the Court ruling in the area of nursing homes and related services.

John Oliver made a big splash last weekend by highlighting the unsettling, and ridiculously lightly-regulated, world of medical debt collection, but a much longer and more serious story published a few days earlier by NPR adds significant depth to reporting on this undercovered issue.

The NPR piece (linked below) details how non-profit hospitals across the country have abused their tax-free status to pursue poor Americans in court. When discussions about universal health care take place in this country it is stories like these that we need to focus on: people who are driven into bankruptcy or who do not get the health care they need because they lack the money to pay outrageous medical bills. That these people are being hounded in court by institutions that also enjoy tax-free status is simply unconscionable.

A search at ProPublica, the public interest journalism website, yields tax filings for dozens of non-profit hospitals here in Oregon. As Oregon Public Broadcasting recently noted, that tax status is predicated on the idea that hospitals which are not in business to turn a profit will do substantial charity work and forgive medical debt whenever it is practical. Yet as OPB documents, between 2014 and 2015 the funds devoted to charitable health care dropped by more than a third here in Oregon, despite the fact that during this time period Obamacare was bringing many more low income patients into our state’s hospitals.

A report broadcast last Sunday on 60 Minutes brought into stark detail alleged abuses in the insurance industry. CBS News found a pattern, which it believes is replicated nationwide, of insurance giants failing to pay life insurance policies despite knowing that the insured person had died.

The report quotes Florida’s insurance commissioner calling the behavior “unconscionable, indefensible” and alleging that it is close to universal in the industry. Simply put, it involves insurance companies knowing that a person has died but failing to inform the beneficiaries of life insurance policies. Instead, the company simply waits for premium payments from the now-deceased policyholder to stop coming in, then cancels the policy for non-payment and pockets what would have been the benefit owed to a surviving spouse, children or grandchildren.

CBS adds: “In a little-known series of settlements, 25 of the nation’s biggest life insurance companies have agreed to pay more than $7.5 billion in back-death benefits. However, about 35 insurance companies have not settled and remain under investigation for not paying when the beneficiary is unaware there was a policy, something that is not at all uncommon.”

It is an election year, so between now and November we can expect to hear many politicians at the national, state and local levels complain about trial lawyers and call for “tort reform.” As an article published this week in Slate outlines, however, an often disingenuous campaign designed to ‘protect’ big business frequently has an even more shocking effect – protecting child abusers and other people who injure children.

The article begins with the story of an Ohio pastor who was convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl in 2008. In addition to his criminal trial the man was sued by the girl and her family in civil court. As I have written in this space on many occasions, this right alone is important and worth defending. Access to courts for victims and their families is essential if justice is going to be served. As the article notes, quoting a legal scholar at New York University, often “the civil justice system is the only way for a perpetrator to be held directly accountable to the victim.”

A court awarded the victim $3.6 million in damages, but because of award caps required under Ohio’s tort reform laws she was only able to collect $350,000 – less than one-tenth of what the jury decided was her due. The girl and her family are now suing to have those caps declared unconstitutional on the grounds that they are “arbitrary and unreasonable, and thus a denial of due process.” Specifically, there is a strong argument to be made that damage caps violate the US Constitution’s guarantee of a trial by jury. An inherent part of that right is letting the jury decide what is fair – something that the tort reform movement seeks to stifle.

As the holiday season kicks off this is a good moment to remind ourselves how important safety is, particularly when it comes to preventing injuries to children, especially since some dangers are not as obvious as one might imagine.

A recent report from Michigan Radio, the state’s public radio network, focused on potentially hazardous toys and other common items, taking its cue from an annual survey issued by the state’s Public Interest Research Group. The good news from the PIRG report is that “none of the toys this year tested positive for lead,” but the radio network went on to note that other hazards remain. In particular it quotes an emergency medicine specialist urging parents “to look out for toys that can break into small parts.”

A particular focus of the report is devices that are not toys but which children are apt to play with such as key fobs, small flashlights or inexpensive watches that may contain small ‘button-style’ batteries. These can be “particularly dangerous” if they are swallowed: the moisture in a child’s body can activate the battery’s contacts leading to dangerous burning of the esophagus. The report notes that many of the potential dangers stem from the fact that by law “button batteries have to be held in place on toys with screws – but that’s not a requirement for other common devices.

Last week the United States Chamber of Commerce released its annual “Lawsuit Climate Survey” – a report the Chamber has published since 2002. The Survey is worth examining because its conclusions can tell us a lot about both the Chamber as an organization and about big business’ priorities and views of our justice system.

According to the website Public Justice, the Chamber’s “report summarizes the answers of a ‘nationally representative sample of 1,203 in-house general counsel, senior litigators or attorneys, and other senior executives who are knowledgeable about litigation matters at companies with annual revenues over $100 million.’” It is, in short, a survey designed to gauge the views of big business toward our courts, and to rank those courts in terms of their favorability toward large companies and their legal agendas.

According to Public Justice, the Chamber finds that state courts are generally more favorable toward companies than federal courts, and that they have become steadily more business-friendly over the last decade, albeit at a slow pace. “In 2003, Corporate America’s lawyers gave the state courts a score of 50.7; in 2015 they gave them a score of 61.7,” the website reports. In assigning letter-grades to states based on the ‘business-friendly’ record of their courts 52% of all state courts were awarded either an ‘A’ or a ‘B’.

With the return of baseball there is also renewed interest this week in “subrogation” – a term that most non-lawyers aren’t familiar with, but one which could ruin the lives of many accident victims here in Oregon and elsewhere even as it enriches their insurance companies.

As outlined in a recent Bloomberg Business story, subrogation, a concept whose origins lie in the American Revolution, is a legal doctrine that allows insurance companies to claim damages from third parties in cases where they must pay claims. “An insurer, for instance, might seek to be repaid by the maker of a faulty furnace that caused a fire in a building the company covered,” the news agency writes. Few would argue with a straightforward example like that, but as is so often the case in modern America big business has turned a well-intentioned legal doctrine on its head in the service of its own bottom lines.

What has brought subrogation into sudden focus is the case of Bryan Stow, the San Francisco Giants fan who was beaten nearly to death in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium on Opening Day four years ago. Last year, Bloomberg reports, Stow won an $18 million judgment against the Dodgers and his two assailants (both of whom are now in prison) but “he has yet to receive any money” because his insurance company is aggressively using the legal system to try to claim millions from the settlement. This is happening even as his medical bills continue to mount, and as the 46-year-old faces a life of hospital visits, physical therapy and expensive ongoing medical care – not to mention decades of lost wages and the long-term emotional effect on him and his family.

A recent article in Slate highlighted an important but little noticed executive order signed by President Obama on the last day of July. According to the online magazine, the “Fair Play and Safe Workplaces” order, as it is formally known, “requires companies bidding for federal contracts worth more than $500,000 to make previous violations of labor law public, if they have any to report.” A less well-publicized, but potentially further-reaching, provision “says that companies with federal contracts worth more than $1 million can no longer force their employees out of court, and into arbitration, to settle accusations of workplace discrimination.”

As the article goes on to note, arbitration clauses buried deep in the fine print have been spreading widely since a Supreme Court ruling (focused on cellphone contracts) upheld them in 2011. The result has been a loss of court access for many Americans. This trend reached both absurd and frightening proportions earlier this summer when food giant General Mills tried to contend that by ‘liking’ any one of its many products on Facebook or other social media sites, or simply by purchasing an item, customers would surrender the right to sue the company ever, over anything.

General Mills later retreated in the face of a storm of public criticism, but the incident highlighted a trend in corporate America that is little-noticed but deeply disturbing: efforts to use ‘terms of service’ to force ordinary Americans to surrender our constitutional right to a trial by jury, as guaranteed by the 7th Amendment. Slate, citing figures compiled by the watchdog group Public Citizen, notes that since that 2011 Supreme Court decision “at least 139 class action suits have died” including cases “brought by consumers who said they’d been stung by predatory lenders, or misleading mortgages, or false promises by vocational schools. And also on the line are complaints by employees of discrimination on the job.”