Medical malpractice lawyers could see pay rise under new state law
3 months, 2 weeks ago Courtesy of Chicago Tribune
Doctors say move will mean less money for injured patients
Medical malpractice lawyers are poised to make more money after Gov. Pat Quinn quietly signed a law allowing them to collect higher fees.
Doctors groups criticize the change, arguing that it will result in less money for injured patients who need it for costly health care and therapy. They also contend the measure was quickly pushed through the General Assembly in the waning days of a lame-duck session by ruling Democrats friendly to trial lawyers.
But supporters say the law is aimed at setting a standardized rate of pay instead of an old system that allowed some lawyers to petition for fees as high as 50 percent of what a client was awarded.
The issue represents the latest back-and-forth between two powerful lobbying groups at the Capitol: the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, which represents attorneys who sue doctors and hospitals accused of negligence, and the Illinois State Medical Society, which represents health care providers. For decades, the two organizations have tossed around millions of dollars in campaign contributions, with the lawyers primarily giving to Democratic candidates and the doctors historically donating to Republicans.
Doctors groups cried foul when the latest measure to raise attorney's fees came up in Springfield during the final days of the legislative session this month. Much of the attention was focused on last-ditch efforts to reform the state's financially faltering government worker pension system.
"With Illinois' financial crisis growing worse by the day, the Illinois General Assembly is instead focused on delivering a big pay increase for trial lawyers handling medical liability lawsuits, all at the expense of injured patients," the medical society said in a news release issued as legislators weighed the bill.
The bill surfaced in the Senate on Jan. 2, tacked onto a measure that originally dealt with firearm ranges. A day later it passed the Senate mostly on Democratic votes. Over in the House, powerful Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan sponsored the bill. A few days later it went to the governor on a 67-46 vote, again with mostly Democratic support. Quinn signed the measure into law Jan. 18, disclosing his move on a Friday afternoon, when politicians often choose to bury controversial news.
The law eliminates the sliding scale that spelled out how much attorneys could charge for bringing medical malpractice cases. Previously, attorneys could collect one-third of an award up to $150,000, 25 percent for awards ranging from $150,000 to $1 million and 20 percent for awards of more than $1 million. Attorneys also could petition the court for even higher fees, a practice the new law eliminated.
The new system will see attorneys collecting a flat one-third rate on all awards. The Medical Society contends that means a patient who was awarded $1 million would now pay $333,333 in attorney's fees as opposed to $262,500 under the old standards — the first $150,000 of the award at the one-third rate and the rest at the 25 percent rate.
"This (law) goes against the purpose for which money is awarded to an injured patient," said Dr. William N. Werner, Illinois medical society president. "Awards are intended to offset patients' losses, not pad the pockets of their attorneys."
But Gregory Shevlin, president of the state's trial lawyers association, said clients can hire attorneys for less than the maximum fee amount. Shevlin said clients could end up saving money under the new limits, because attorneys no longer will be able to petition the court for fees beyond what is set in law.
"This is going to free up the courts' time and save the doctors some money, because they aren't going to have to pay lawyers to go in and attend these hearings for enhanced fees," Shevlin said.
Quinn's office echoed that stance as the reason he quickly signed the bill.
"Flat rates for contingency fees in medical malpractice cases will provide more consistency and certainty for both malpractice victims and attorneys, while eliminating the awarding of additional attorney compensation by the courts," Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said in a statement.
Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, balked at the notion that the law was quickly pushed through to avoid controversy, saying parts of the bill have been "a work in progress" for years. Harmon took control of the bill on behalf of the original sponsor, Democratic Sen. James Clayborne, a personal injury attorney from Belleville.
The lawyers and doctors have skirmished in Springfield for decades, with the latest tussle coming to a head in 2005, when lawmakers set limits on the amount of damages that could be awarded to victims of medical negligence. Doctors and hospitals contended that without the limits, medical costs would continue to skyrocket as health care providers fled to other states because of higher insurance premiums.
In 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court threw out the limits, saying they allowed lawmakers to interfere with the judicial process. The latest bill was aimed at fixing parts of the law deemed unconstitutional, but it also changed the attorney fee structure that had been in place since 1985.
Trial lawyers gave $537,000 to those running for the state House and Senate last year, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. The medical society gave more than $386,000, the watchdog group found. Those totals don't include contributions from individual trial lawyers and doctors, which traditionally have been significant.
Harmon, who has received more than $35,000 from the trial lawyers group during the past decade, downplayed campaign contributions made to Democrats by the trial attorneys as a reason they voted for the bill.
"The medical society and the trial lawyers are excellent sparring partners in Springfield," Harmon said. "I think we may be witnessing another round in an ongoing bout."
David Morrison, the campaign reform group's deputy director, said the prevalence of donations from the trial attorneys may be a cause for concern, but he noted that the medical lobby is also a major contributor in Springfield.
"As far as money goes, when Republicans ran the show, they ran the tort bills that the trial lawyers hated. Now the Democrats run the show, so the docs are going to complain about the patients getting the short shrift," Morrison said. "I don't think anyone has clean hands."