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Who really funds Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse ?

Published: Thursday, June 15, 2000
Page: P1C
Byline: Martha Leonard A spokeswoman for Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse says the high number of medical malpractice cases in West Virginia shows that too many cases without merit are being allowed in the courts.

"People who are truly injured have a right to their day in court, but more and more people are suing who have no basis for a suit," said Cheryl Carlson, executive director of CALA of Southern West Virginia.

"I can't imagine that the physicians in West Virginia are any better or worse than those who practice in any other state." Carlson cited a state Supreme Court decision last year which upheld a $2.1 million jury award to a plaintiff who said he suffered pain following a botched vasectomy. After the verdict, lawyers for the defendant, Dr. Aurelio Benavides, asked for a new trial after they saw a videotape of the plaintiff moving without any apparent discomfort.

The Supreme Court voted 4-1 to uphold the lower court's verdict.

"It's because of things like this that we think there needs to be more balance and fairness in the system," Carlson said.

Carlson's private nonprofit group is part of a network of similar organizations in several states.

"We have seven volunteer board members and 12,000 people on our mailing list," she said. "All kinds of people serve on our board - a small business owner, a doctor, a flower shop owner and several retirees." Carlson said the organization is funded by individual contributions, but critics say the group is funded by large corporate interests.

"This is a national, concerted effort backed by the insurance and manufacturing industries," said R. Edison Hill, a Charleston lawyer.

"They funnel money back into the states, seeking to change laws that will benefit themselves." Political columnist Molly Ivins once called the CALA groups examples of "Astroturf," a term she used to describe phony grass-roots organizations funded by big business.

Carlson says CALA's purpose is to educate the public about the state's legal system.

"We think people should not try to blame someone for the risks and accidents that happen in everyday life." Recently the Gazette reported on information contained in the National Practitioner Data Bank, indicating that between 1990 and 1999, West Virginia had the second-highest number of malpractice cases in the nation.

Carlson said given those numbers, the threat of medical malpractice lawsuits is causing doctors in West Virginia to give up their practices.

"We are not only paying more in health-care costs because of lawsuits, but we're losing doctors because of fear of lawsuits," she said.

As an example, Carlson cited the case of Dr. Ronald Jones, a Charleston obstetrician who quit his practice after a jury awarded a patient $175,000 in a 1997 lawsuit against Jones for the death of a daughter who was stillborn.

"Jones finally said, 'Enough is enough.' Every time he turned around, there was the threat of a lawsuit," she said.

No one group is to blame for the amount of lawsuits in the state, Carlson said.

"Some personal injury lawyers are greedy, and we have a few who file a lot of lawsuits," she said.

"But it's the system as a whole that's the problem. Judges have a right to dismiss cases that are without merit, but it's very rare that happens, and usually there's a settlement." To contact staff writer Martha Leonard, use e-mail or call 348-1254.

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