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My Turn: Pre-trial panels in malpractice cases are working

I read with disappointment Sarah Palermo’s article in the Jan. 18 Monitor, “Health panels panned.” Obviously she has not read the data collected by the New Hampshire Superior Court Center over the past six years on the pre-trial panels. Plaintiffs’ attorney David Gottesman’s statement – “They are taking too long and they’re too expensive” – is just not true. Nashua Sen. Betty Lasky claimed “it is two trials,” but only 28 of 609 medical claim filings resulted in a panel hearing and a jury trial.

A review of the statistics from the New Hampshire Superior Courts show that 60 percent of the medical malpractice filings (353 of 609) were resolved prior to a panel hearing. These prompt resolutions are the result of lawyers on both sides being forced to take an early look at malpractice claims because of the panel system. Early resolutions are better for everyone – the injured patient, the defendants and the courts.

Eighty-five percent (89 of 105) of panels occurred within two years of the filed complaint, and 95 percent (98 of 105) are completed within two days. This is in stark contrast to a jury trial which takes place three to six years after a filing and requires two to three weeks to complete.

Seventy-five percent of all panel decisions (165 of 223) are unanimous. As in Maine, where the pre-trial panel law has been in place for more than 25 years, almost 90 percent of unanimous decisions for the defense (83 of 93) do not go to a jury trial, and 96 percent of unanimous decisions for the plaintiff (47 of 49) are settled.

There have been only 28 jury trials following 223 panel decisions in the past six years, an average of less than five per year since we have had the pre-trial panel law. This number is far fewer than the 12 to 15 jury trials that took place annually before we had the pre-trial panels.

The reduced number of jury trials is an enormous cost savings. Early resolutions result in prompt payment to the injured patient. Sixty percent of insurance premiums no longer go into the pockets of lawyers and physician expert witnesses while less than 40 percent goes to a claimant. Physicians have found that a panel hearing is about seeking justice unencumbered by the theatrics of a jury trial.

Tina Nadeau, chief justice of the superior courts, has seen the panel statistics and stated in the article that “any major changes in the law will likely be far down the line.” A report by the Medical Malpractice Screening Panel Oversight Committee in November recommended no change in the law.

With our pre-trial panel law and the recent early-offer program, New Hampshire is at the forefront of worthwhile medical malpractice tort reform. Let’s not change that.

(Dr. Oge Young of Concord is past president of the New Hampshire Medical Society.)

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