The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation refused to consolidate 28 class-action lawsuits over hospitals' billing of uninsured patients, a move requested by the consortium of law firms that filed the suits and opposed by the hospital defendants. "Centralization would neither serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses nor further the just and efficient conduct of this litigation," the panel said in its ruling. Numerous hospitals and the American Hospital Association were named as defendants in the suits, which allege that hospitals bill uninsured patients at unfair rates and are too aggressive in their collection practices. The law firms are led by plaintiffs attorney Richard Scruggs of Oxford, Miss.
"This is good news," an attorney for one of the defendants, Phoebe Putney Health System, Albany, Ga., said in a statement. "We have maintained from the beginning that this case has no merit, and that there was no reason to consolidate these cases ... We are optimistic that the court would agree on the larger issues as well." The decision means cases will proceed individually in the federal district court for each hospital's district, said Melinda Hatton, vice president and chief Washington counsel for the AHA. "The best place for the decisions to be made is in the communities in which (the hospitals) operate," Hatton said. Proceedings had been halted in some cases pending the ruling by the multidistrict panel, she said.
A spokeswoman for Scruggs, Lin-Hua Wu, said the decision doesn't bear on the cases' legal merits. "Our decision to pursue (multidistrict litigation status) was a tactical one intended to streamline the process," she said, reading a statement from Scruggs. -- by Paul Barr