Medical malpractice lawsuits nearly impossible to win in Wisconsin

Study: medical errors claim over 251,000 lives

Seven hundred deaths a day from medical mistakes. New research shows that's how many Americans are dying due to medical errors.  The I-Team looked into malpractice deaths in Wisconsin and talked to victims who say state laws make it nearly impossible to right the wrongdoing.

According to new research led by Johns Hopkins, medical errors claim more than 251,000 lives a year, making it the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer.  And if medical malpractice happens in Wisconsin, many people affected are blocked from seeking justice because of laws and court rulings.

Pat Madden-Ripp's husband died five years ago from a general staph infection not caught by UW health doctors.  

“His heart was racing, he's dripping sweat," Madden-Ripp said. “You trust so much that they're going to be thorough and do what they need to do.”

One of the two doctors who treated Floyd Ripp twice was reprimanded.  The Wisconsin Medical Examining Board found Dr. Mon Yee "engaged in unprofessional conduct" and fined him $935.   Left to take care of their farm in Rio alone, Pat looked into filing a malpractice claim, but couldn't find an attorney to take the case.  

"A lot of them said, ‘No we don't take UW cases because the cap is so low, '" Madden-Ripp said.

Wisconsin has limits, or caps, on what people can collect for non-economic damages, like pain and suffering.  For UW doctors it's $250,000.  For any other doctor in the state, the limit is $750,000.  

Rose DeLeon's mom died in January after surgery on her spinal cord. She's still waiting for an official cause of death, but Rose feels the doctor made a mistake, and she can't do anything about it.  In addition to the caps, state law only allows spouses and minor children to sue.  

"It's all kind of pooled into just anger, and I can't do anything with it,” DeLeon said.

Over the last 17 years, medical malpractice lawsuits in Wisconsin dropped more than 50 percent, even though the state-run malpractice insurance fund sits at $1.2 trillion. Created in 1975, doctors pay into the fund, which gives them additional malpractice coverage on top of their primary insurance.  Experts say this keeps malpractice premiums lower in Wisconsin, which helps attract physicians to the state.  

Many trial attorneys, like Daniel Rottier, say the system in Wisconsin is broken. Rottier's firm rarely takes on medical malpractice cases anymore because of the limits on rewards.  

"They're only paying out around $15 million a year right now for claims. There comes a point where this grand bargain of protecting doctors, limiting patients has gotten out of whack,” Rottier said.

Dr. Donn Dexter with the Wisconsin Medical Society says one death from medical error is too many, but said big changes have been made to reduce mistakes.  And he pointed out it's nowhere near the third leading cause of death in Wisconsin.  

"The number of hospital admissions went up 11%, the number of deaths fell 8%. So we're doing something right,” Dexter said.

Madden-Ripp now has grandchildren, a life event her husband never got to experience.  She continues to hope for a better system for victims.

“There should be accountability, and there should be some changes made,” Madden-Ripp said.

About 35 states have some sort of damage caps like Wisconsin, but our state consistently ranks as one of the lowest when it comes to paying out on medical malpractice claims.  As far as the new research that puts medical error as one of the leading causes of death in America, Dr. Dexter doesn't agree with the numbers.  He calls it a re-look at older data, and says the definition of medical error used by researchers is overly broad.

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