The Ohio State Medical Association is using the courts to strike back at attorneys who file what the group believes are frivolous medical malpractice suits against physicians.
In November 2003, the association formed a Frivolous Lawsuit Committee to assist physicians in obtaining judicial relief in this area of litigation. The OSMA has been soliciting from physicians reports of possible attorney abuse of the legal system. So far, the committee has received 40 complaints for review.
Last month, they took action.
Attorneys for a Columbus-area physician, Victoria Ruff, M.D., filed a motion for sanctions against a plaintiff and an attorney for wrongfully naming Ruff in a malpractice lawsuit along with 22 other defendants, according to the OSMA. No specific allegations of wrongdoing were made against Ruff in the suit, according to Almeta Cooper, general counsel for the OSMA.
The association is underwriting the cost of the sanctions suit because, at the present, physicians' insurance companies have been reluctant to do so, Cooper said.
This is the first case to be filed under this new fight-back strategy, but it probably won't be the last, Cooper said.
"We're working on identifying a couple of other cases we're hoping to be filed in the near future," she said.
Ruff, an intensivist and director of the intensive care unit at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, said a March 16 hearing has been set on her motion, but she finds no joy in swinging back.
"It's a necessary evil," she said Wednesday. "I feel obligated to do it."
Ruff said she won't profit from the suit. Any monetary recovery will go to offset her legal costs. The idea is to raise public awareness of the problem created by so-called "shotgun" lawsuits in which multiple defendants are named without plaintiff's counsel performing adequate prior research to determine whether the multiple defendants had anything to do with the cause of the action, she said.
"In my case, there were 23 physicians named," Ruff said. "Every one of them has counsel. Just to answer a complaint can be anywhere up to $25,000 (in legal fees) and in each of these lawsuits, your medical malpractice insurance goes up. It really contributes to increased cost."
In the wake of the latest suit, Ruff said, her medical malpractice insurance carrier will switch her coverage basis from an occurrence policy to claims-made, which will force her one day to purchase expensive tail coverage.
Cooper, the president of the American Health Lawyers Association, said the push for sanctions aims to induce personal injury lawyers to do their homework before naming a physician in a malpractice action.
"We would like to change behavior so that lawyers and plaintiffs will stop filing these kinds of shotgun suits," she said. "This is one area people have control over if you exercise due diligence."