Union Tribune

January 23, 2003 

Malpractice caps unfair, Chula Vista family says
Parents say boy's disabilities have not been fully redressed


By DANA WILKIE 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 


WASHINGTON He cannot see, he walks with leg braces, and his
IQ lags far behind that of most other 12-year-olds.

This is life for Steven Olsen, the once-healthy Chula Vista boy
who is becoming a poster child for the battle against President
Bush's plan to cap the amount that juries can give to victims of
medical malpractice.

Today, 12-year-old Olsen and his parents will speak out again st
the Republican president's plan by telling how doctors in 1992
refused a test that could have diagnosed a brain abscess in
Steven, then 2; how Steven became blind and brain-damaged;
how a jury awarded the boy $7 million for pain and suffering;
and how a California law forced the judge to lower that to
$250,000.

Bush last week announced that he wants legislation that would
be similar to some aspects of the 1975 California law that capped
the Olsens' pain-and-suffering judgment at $250,000.

The Olsens won economic damages in their case; all told, they
got about $2.9 million. Steven's father, Scott Olsen, said that is
still not enough to pay the estimated $4.5 million that it will cost
to care for Steven for the rest of his life.

When Steven was 2, he fell on a twig that penetrated his sinus
area. Doctors at Children's Hospital rejected his parents' plea for
an $800 brain CAT scan. An abscess developed, leading to
Steven's permanent disabilities and cerebral palsy.

"It's easy for them to say (the Bush plan) is fair and balanced,
because they're not hurt by malpractice," said Scott Olsen, who
is in Washington to kick off a nationwide bus tour by consumer
advocates opposed to the Bush plan. "We challenge them to find
any person injured by malpractice in California who will agree
that this is fair and balanced."

Medical groups blame escalating jury awards for the high cost of
malpractice insurance which they say is forcing some doctors
to leave certain medical specialties.

The American Medical Association is among groups that support
Bush's plan.

The California Medical Association notes that, before the 1975
law, California physicians were paying 20 percent of the
country's malpractice insurance premiums. Today, it says, the
state's doctors pay 11 percent. A Los Angeles
obstetrician-gynecologist, for example, pays about $60,588 a
year for malpractice insurance, compared with $201,376 a year
for a doctor in Miami and $106,766 for one in Detroit, said CMA
spokesman Peter Warren.

"There are always going to be horror cases," Warren said. "But it's
very hard to produce the horror case that happens if operating
rooms are closed, or if neurosurgeons can't operate" because the
cost of malpractice insurance forces them out of practice, he
added.

Among those fighting Bush's plan are the lawyers for malpractice
victims and the California Foundation for Taxpayer and
Consumer Rights. The foundation contends that malpractice
rates have stayed low in the state because of Proposition 103,
the insurance reform measure passed by voters in 1988.

"The Olsens' story . . . exemplifies the new pressures on medicine
to put money ahead of high-quality care, and why it's the most
dangerous time to limit liability for medical providers," said
foundation spokesman Jamie Court.

California's law, the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act,
allows punitive damage awards when there is malice or fraud,
which is often difficult to prove. Bush's plan would limit punitive
damages; a comparable bill by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a
Democrat, would not.

The California law also has no limit on how much juries can
award patients for economic damages, such as medical expenses
and loss of earnings.