Not-for-profit hospitals are expected to fight an effort to consolidate a series of class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of uninsured patients. Merging the cases-40 of which have been filed in federal courts since June 17-would give the plaintiffs a major strategic advantage, legal experts said.
In a five-page motion filed last week with the federal Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation in Washington, George Bellas of the Clifford Law Offices-which filed actions against three Illinois hospital systems-argued that consolidating would reduce litigation costs, prevent conflicting rulings and allow cases to proceed more efficiently.
The motion said all not-for-profit hospitals "are governed by the same implicit obligation of serving the poor and uninsured," stemming from federal tax exemptions. It said the litigation's purpose is to "establish a much-needed guideline for the charitable practices of not-for-profit hospitals."
Common discovery would be appropriate, the motion said, because the American Hospital Association is named as a defendant in all of the cases. The plaintiffs charge that the trade association has directed all hospitals' indigent-care policies.
Consolidation was used successfully as a tactic in class-action tobacco litigation brought by attorney Richard Scruggs, who is orchestrating the lawsuits against hospitals.
Philip Lebowitz, a partner at the Duane Morris law firm, said consolidating would greatly reduce trial costs for the plaintiffs, remove cases from local forums that could be sympathetic to hospitals and make it more difficult for individual hospitals to get their cases dismissed. But consolidating cases against hospitals could be more problematic than in a product suit.
"Normally, cases are consolidated where the factual background is similar," he said. "Here the legal theories are the same but each hospital is different in terms of charges, policies with regard to uninsured patients, policies with regard to indigent cases and the state and local laws under which they operate," Lebowitz said.
Dan Parker, a spokesman for defendant, Advocate Health Care, Oak Brook, Ill., said, "We're aware of the move to consolidate these cases, and we're reviewing it."
Meanwhile, Baystate Medical Center last week became the first Massachusetts hospital to face a class-action lawsuit on behalf of uninsured patients. A lawsuit charging the 588-bed Springfield hospital with aggressive billing and collection tactics was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Boston.
A spokewoman for Scruggs said more lawsuits were expected to be filed this week.