Ohio Hospital Association officials said the results of the Nov. 5 elections for the Ohio Supreme Court could mean medical malpractice-law reform finally may come to the Buckeye State.
Ohio is one of several states where physicians and hospitals have led public relations and lobbying campaigns for tort reform relief they argue is needed to squelch a growing national malpractice-insurance crisis. But to date, the Ohio Supreme Court always has overturned such legislative efforts as unconstitutional.
With the election earlier this month of two conservative Republican justices to the seven-judge Supreme Court, hospitals and physicians are optimistic their efforts finally might pay off in a more sympathetic court less likely to override Ohio General Assembly reform bills.
"They will create an environment for the future that will give us much more predictability and stability regarding medical malpractice in Ohio," OHA spokeswoman Mary Yost said.
Yost said for the last decade the state Supreme Court has been dominated by two Democrats who remain on the bench and two Republicans who frequently voted with Democrats on tort reform issues. One of those two Republicans stepped down because of mandatory age retirement, creating a vacancy. He was replaced in the election by a conservative Republican who is expected to vote with the previous minority. In the other seat decided in the election, an incumbent conservative Republican from the minority was re-elected.
Yost said that though the political composition of the court has not changed, its judicial philosophy has. In the past, Yost said, the Supreme Court expanded malpractice liability for hospitals and doctors, recognized new causes of action and extended previous rulings retroactively. She said that's meant fewer malpractice insurance carriers offering coverage, significantly higher malpractice premiums and changes in physician practice patterns.
"Three times in the last three decades the Ohio General Assembly has passed tort reform and three times the Supreme Court has overturned those laws, laws that were found to be constitutional in other states," Yost said. She said the state Legislature has three tort reform bills before it that now stand a better chance, not only of passing, but of becoming law.
The three bills place caps on noneconomic damages in malpractice cases and limit lawyer contingency fees, as well as proportionately reducing the liability of providers determined to be less than 50% responsible in a malpractice case.
The OHA's political action committee, Friends of Ohio Hospitals, and the state's physicians spent more than $500,000 to re-elect Justice Evelyn Stratton and elect conservative Maureen O'Connor to the empty seat. Yost said the new Supreme Court majority will be less likely to legislate from the bench.