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Alabama Malpractice Laws Protect Doctors, Not Patients

— October 18, 2016

Imagine receiving a diagnosis of cancer, complete with a treatment protocol that included grueling chemotherapy treatments, radiation and a surgically-placed port in your chest, only to learn a year later you never actually had the disease and were the victim of a misdiagnosis. I think in most cases, patients would not only want answers, but the doctor who wrongfully diagnosed them to be held accountable for such a life-altering mistake. Such was the case with 67-year-old William Hoston, who in 2007 learned his oncologist, David G. Morrison of Montgomery, Alabama, had unnecessarily put him through the painfully aggressive treatments for a disease he didn’t actually have.

Understandably, Hoston sued on the grounds of medical malpractice, naming Morrison as the defendant. It seemed like an open and shut case, though it was anything but. Hoston justifiably cited the emotional and physical toll the treatments had on him, trusting he had been suffering from cancer as relayed to him by Morrison. He lost his case. It was later revealed through disciplinary records that Hoston was not the only patient to have undergone treatment for a disease they didn’t have; in fact, Morrison had been implicated in at least a dozen other instances of misdiagnoses, resulting in the patients undergoing treatment they didn’t need.

In Hoston’s case, he found out he never had cancer when he and his wife were told by a separate doctor he had received the diagnosis in error. According to his wife, the doctor told the couple, “If you had been my patient, I never would have put you on chemo.” Sadly, Hoston died in 2011, on Valentine’s Day, leaving his wife Elnora to believe the superfluous chemotherapy was responsible for shortening, and subsequently ending, his life. She said while her husband was undergoing treatment, he became frail and unable to get out of bed most days, lost interest in eating due to constant nausea, shed a great deal of weight and ended up developing the lung and heart issues that eventually caused his death.

Definition of malpractice through magnifying glass; image courtesy of
Definition of malpractice through magnifying glass; image courtesy of

According to federal data, roughly 90 percent of patients who allege medical malpractice lose their cases in the state of Alabama, having received fewer monetary damages in this particular type of lawsuit than in any other state in the country between 2004 and 2014. Further research indicates that although medical malpractice cases have declined significantly across the country, doctor error is responsible for around 250,000 deaths per year. Between 2006 and 2016 in the state of Alabama alone, over 150 doctors have been sued for medical malpractice, sometimes more than a few times, with Morrison having been the subject of nine lawsuits. However, the state has stringent rules regarding what constitutes malpractice: the evidence must only be based on the treatment the patient in the case received, and no other claims of medical malpractice against the defending practitioner may be introduced in court. This is the result of previous claims having increased insurance premiums, which required doctors to pay higher fees for coverage against said allegations. In Hoston’s case, his suit was dismissed over confusion regarding the dates he received treatment in relation to when the claim against Morrison was filed.

Known as one of the most difficult states to win a medical malpractice lawsuit, patients are often left to not only deal with misdiagnoses and improper treatments, but also the knowledge the law tends to favor the offenders over them. According to medical malpractice lawyer Shay Samples, who was not involved in Hoston’s case, “We talk to lawyers all over the country and Alabama is without question the hardest state to win a case. There are jury verdicts in about 90 percent of the cases in favor of the doctors.”

Though the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners rescinded Morrison’s medical license on the basis of unprofessional behavior, classifying his recommendations for treatment as medical malpractice and ordering he pay a $266,000 fine, Hoston never saw a dime of it. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court overturned the state’s previously imposed cap on damages against medical professionals, which stood at $400,000 for pain and suffering and $1 million for wrongful death. However, the decision has seemed to make it that much harder to win a malpractice lawsuit.

ProAssurance, which is headquartered in Alabama and is one the largest medical malpractice insurance companies in the country, is notoriously hard to beat because they generally push for a jury trial over settling, knowing most juries will side with the defendant over the plaintiff. Attorney and professor Jack Nelson, who works at the UAB School of Public Health, said, “I think the laws generally protect doctors…a lot of attorneys have just gotten out of it. There are a lot of ways to make money that are a lot easier than suing doctors in Alabama.”


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