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Lawyer: When docs make mistakes, people deserve 'substantial' awards

By Denise Allabaugh, Citizens' Voice Staff Writer - May 07, 2002

When someone is seriously injured as a result of doctors' mistakes, Attorney Joseph A. Quinn Jr. believes this person deserves a "substantial" award.

And when Quinn says "substantial," he means it. He has won some awards for clients in excess of $20 million, and has won many awards in excess of $1 million.

"Most of these cases could have, and should have been settled much, much earlier and for much less of a sum," Quinn said. "But, some people have a hard time admitting they made a mistake."

These high-priced awards have made Quinn a friend of the seriously injured he represents, but a potential threat to the doctors and health care systems he prosecutes.

Many doctors have charged that a surge of expensive lawsuits have raised their medical malpractice insurance premiums.

Some doctors, health care administrators and legislators have attempted, unsuccessfully, to cap non-economic damages in malpractice suits at $250,000 for pain and suffering.
Quinn is adamantly opposed to putting a cap on damages, and noted that the U.S. Constitution prevents this.

"The reality is there are many good, dedicated doctors, but they're human and they make mistakes. The reality is when they make mistakes, they sometimes result in catastrophic injury or death," Quinn noted. "Those people who suffer those type of injuries are entitled to substantial awards."

Quinn is a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, an organization limited to 100 lawyers in the country who represent the seriously injured. He is the only lawyer from Northeastern Pennsylvania who has been so-honored.
For every case that Quinn takes, he turns down at least 15 or more.
He said he only takes on cases "with merit."

Quinn is now involved in a trial in which is he is seeking a substantial award for a 9-year-old girl who suffered irreversible brain damage.

"This is a little girl who was perfectly healthy. This is a little girl now whose intelligence is at the level of a 5-year-old," Quinn said. "Now, she can never talk. She can never walk. She can never live independently. She requires around the clock care."

Quinn brings in expert witnesses to testify at trials for the seriously injured. In this case, a top life care planner estimated that future costs to care for the little girl will amount to $22 to $27 million.

"If those are the reasonable costs that have been necessitated by their errors, why shouldn't there be a substantial award?" Quinn asked. "That doesn't begin to take into account her lost wages, her lost earning capacity, her physical pain, her emotional suffering and that of her parents."

Quinn employs three nurses which help evaluate potential clients. Then, he talks to experts. For many trials, he brings in multiple experts to testify.
"These are very expensive, time-consuming cases," Quinn stressed.

"Many of the people who sustain injuries are not powerful, are not wealthy, not connected and are not well-privileged. The only chance they have to pursue a legitimate claim is for a lawyer to take the case on a contingent fee."

Quinn noted that he cannot take on a case unless one or more of a doctor's peers will say there is negligence. He pointed out that doctors who testify often charge expensive fees.

"Some doctors complain about the cost of the system, but they're the ones who charge $300 an hour, $500 an hour, or even $1,000 an hour to testify," Quinn noted. "When they talk about the expense of the system, a large part is the fee charged by experts to review files."

Quinn believes HMOs have had a tremendous impact on restricting patients' access to care.

HMOs also have restricted some physicians from conducting tests, making referrals and in keeping patients in hospitals not long enough to care for them, he said.

"There are pressures on health care providers," Quinn noted. "In the past in hospitals, there always was a back-up system. Now, you don't have that same cohesion and that same cooperation and there are a lot of errors made."

Quinn does not believe malpractice insurance rates should be high for all doctors. He believes doctors should "police themselves" and their insurance rates should be based on their experience level.

"There are some doctors who make repeated errors who add to the cost of the system," Quinn said. "The whole system should be streamlined."
According to the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, medical errors have risen from the eighth to fifth leading cause of death.

The national median in medical malpractice jury awards jumped 43 percent in one year, from $700,000 in 1999 to $1 million in 2000.

Plaintiffs won only 38 percent of medical malpractice cases that went to a jury in 2000, up slightly from 34 percent in 1999, while more than half of the awards were $500,000 or more, according to Jury Verdict Research.

According to the Physician Insurance Association of America, dismissed or withdrawn cases cost more than $8,000 each and court cases won by physicians had a medical cost greater than $66,000.