Nov. 10, 2005 — -- In recent years many doctors and politicians have complained that frivolous malpractice lawsuits and disproportionate jury awards are a problem in need of reform.
But when "Primetime" did some investigating, it turned out that at least some of the people in favor of reform -- even some of its loudest proponents -- have themselves benefited from the current laws.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., says that the No. 1 health care crisis in his state is medical lawsuit abuse and in the past he's called for a $250,000 cap on non-economic damage awards or awards for pain and suffering. "We need to do something now to fix the medical liability problem in this country," he declared at a rally in Washington D.C., this past spring.
But Santorum's wife sued a doctor for $500,000 in 1999. She claimed that a botched spinal manipulation by her chiropractor led to back surgery, pain and suffering, and sued for twice the amount of a cap Santorum has supported.
Santorum declined a request for an interview, so "Primetime" caught up with him at the signing of his new book in Pennsylvania this August to ask if he thinks his stance and history are in conflict.
"I guess I could answer that in two ways," he said. "Number one is that I've supported caps. I've been very clear that I am not wedded at all to a $250,000 cap and I've said publicly repeatedly, and I think probably that is somewhat low, and that we need to look at what I think is a cap that is a little bit higher than that."
But the fact is that Santorum has sponsored or co-sponsored a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages two times -- even though he testified in his wife's case against the doctor.
"Of course I'm going to support my wife in her endeavors," he said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that I agree with everything that she does."
But Santorum agreed enough to tell the jury that he had to carry the laundry upstairs for his wife and that, because she suffered humiliation from weight gain, she no longer had the confidence to help him on the campaign trail. The jury was so moved it voted to award Karen Santorum $350,000.
"That's where again you're misled is that a lot of, there was cumulative damages," he said. "The medical bills, lost income, all those other things that were out there."
Those medical bills totaled $18,800, yet she sued for $500,000. And lost income? The judge made no mention of that when he slashed the jury's award in half, saying it was excessive.
The judge noted that the remaining damages "awarded amounted to something in the neighborhood of $330,000 or so for injuries sustained and the effect upon Mrs. Santorum's health, her past and future pain and suffering and inconvenience."