Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Proposition 12: Does Texas need a constitutional amendment to limit noneconomic damages?

Prompted by a friend and former student/research assistant, I venture a couple of opinions about the current vote on Proposition 12, which would amend the Texas constitution to authorize the Lege to limit the ability of courts to order judgments based upon large noneconomic damages (such as pain and suffering).

1. As has been reported widely, including last Sunday in the Fort Worth Startlegram, doctors are lobbying patients with posters in their offices, brochures at the sign-in desk, inserts in the mailed bills to their homes, and jawboning during office visits. As the AMA Ethics Code rightly points out (AMA Opinion 9.012), doctors don't lose their first amendment rights when they become licensed. But they have to do so "with the utmost sensitivity to patients' vulnerability and desire for privacy." A careful and discreet physician would at least heed the warning of the Connecticut State Medical Society: "Political conversations are a fundamental part of political freedom. They must be, however, undertaken with great care in order that they do not interfere with the physician-patient relationship, exploit the medical authority of the physician or impose upon vulnerable patients or family members. Physicians should use common sense in deciding on the time and place for the exercise of their political rights." Different people will draw the line in different places, but I favor a more restrictive approach within the existing rule that would avoid political proselytizing within the office (unless the subject is raised by the patient, signalling her comfort level with the discussion), and I'd even extend that to inserts that accompany the bill. For a defense of such an approach, check out the comments of medical ethicist and religious studies professor M. Therese Lysaught.

2. On the merits, Prop. 12 seems both reckless and unnecessary. Unnecessary because HB 4 already limits noneconomic damages in med mal cases, adding Texas to the minority of states to have done so. A recent report from the federal Government Accounting Office (mentioned in this blawg on August 3) has given us plenty of reason to believe that this law won't solve or even particularly address the insurance crisis in Texas, but no one is seriously questioning the constitutionality of HB 4. Doctors who say a vote for Prop. 12 is a vote for your physician are being just a little disingenuous. They got their fix from the 78th Legislature. This isn't about them any more, other than to provide a constitutional "fix" for the inevitable (but, I predict, unsuccessful) constitutional challenge that will be mounted against HB 4. The constitutional arguments are not strong ones, and they've mostly been rehearsed in the courts the last time the Legislature enacted tort reform for health care claims. Reckless because it opens the door to wholesale legislative revision of the tort system and the checks and balances that have worked for a very long time in this state to keep all kinds of businesses and merchants in line. As between the two major groups waging war over this -- Save Texas Courts vs. Yes on 12 -- STC (consisting of a coalition headed by former Supreme Court Justices Deborah Hankinson and James Baker -- neither one known to be partial to the plaintiffs' bar or law-reform groups like the ACLU) seems to have the better arguments, which to one degree or another have been endorsed by every major newspaper editorial board in the state, as well as Texas AARP, MADD, and the ACLU.
posted by tommayo, 10:08 AM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter