By Lynn Brezosky
BROWNSVILLE, Texas --
Life in the Rio Grande Valley is pleasant enough for Dr. Bradley
Nordyke. The fast-growing population needs him, and he enjoys
perks such as light traffic, proximity to Mexico and a quick
drive to Gulf Coast Beaches.
The caveat is his fear of litigation.
"Being sued is part of practicing medicine. I have heard
that same statement from lawyer friends of mine," Nordyke
said. "One said, 'Don't take it personal, it's just part
of business.' I'm sorry, but I DO take it personal. Plus,
I have to worry about losing everything I've worked for."
Nordyke is one of about 600 private practice and hospital
doctors who closed their offices for a day in April 2002 for
a "day of awareness" about malpractice insurance
fees and a litigious climate they say is driving rates up
and driving doctors away.
"Up the coast in Nueces County, where 63% of doctors
have had claims filed against them in the last 13 years, doctors
showed similar support for the walkout, though emergency services
at hospitals were not stopped.
"It's not something they want to do, but circumstances
compel them to do it, " said Jon Opelt of Citizens Against
Lawsuits Abuse, which is organizing the event. "They
see this as a plea for survival for doctors and patients."
In Texas and across the nation, the insurance industry has
been rocked by the stock market slide, 9-11 aftermath and
In parts of the nation, doctors pay $200,000 or more for malpractice
coverage. West Virginia's governor recently called lawmakers
into special session to devise affordable insurance options
to keep doctors from leaving the state.
Since 1999, seven of 17 malpractice insurance carriers serving
Texas have either left or gone belly up, according to the
Texas Department of Insurance.
"Over the last coupe of years we have been paying out
more in claims then we have taken in, in premiums," said
Julie Pulliam of the National Insurance Association. "Claim
costs have gone through the roof. The primary reason is the
cost of lawsuits."
Kim Ross, a lobbyist with the Texas Medical Association, attributed
the surging premiums to several factors.
"Lawyers need to accept their responsibility for their
failure to police themselves, and the insurance companies
need to provide responsible pricing and underwriting accountability,"
Lawyers say doctors mistakenly believe that tort reforms limiting
jury awards will lower their insurance premiums. They note
that the New York-based Center for Justice & Democracy
found that while insurance companies benefit by limitations
on what juries can make them pay, the companies do NOT pass
those savings on to customers.
"I really don't think it is a lawsuit problem, I think
it's an insurance problem," McAllen attorney Albert Garcia
said. "The public, if they're like me, doesn't like insurance
companies and doesn't trust insurance companies. The companies
know that and they have to blame someone and lawyers are easy
Opelt of the lawsuit abuse organization blames lawyers for
filing frivolous lawsuits, 86 percent of which result in no
payment to the plaintiff (but expense to the doctor for defense
of the lawsuit). But awards that are granted in the Valley
"tend to be considerably larger than state average,"
There are several theories why south Texas juries are so generous.
The Valley is a geographically isolated region with large,
young families and one of the poorest places in the nation.
Large corporations are likely to be seen as distant big businesses
with limitless wealth rather than mass employers.
According to the Texas Medical Liability Trust, Valley doctors
are at least 10 percent more likely than doctors elsewhere
in Texas to have a claim filed against them, and 20 percent
more likely than doctors in most parts of the nation.