The Issues: Tort Reform

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The link, if any, between medical malpractice lawsuits and the high cost of health care for all Americans has been a hot issue in the presidential campaign.

In this final installment of the election-year series titled "What Does it Mean to You?", CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews takes a look at the candidates' positions on malpractice awards.

Five-month-old Aliya was the only daughter in the Dozier family - the answer to her parents' prayers.

She was their dream.

"She was a precious one," say her parents. "Always smiling."

She was smiling until the day Aliya suddenly died of a heart problem, which a Los Angeles jury ruled her doctor should have detected.

When that jury awarded the Doziers $1.5 million in damages, the judge reduced the award to $250,000 because California caps certain damages in malpractice cases. To the Doziers, it was their second tragedy.

"It was never about the money, it was about answers," says Aliya's father. "It was to make the doctors accountable."

Malpractice reform is high on President Bush's agenda because, he argues, frivolous lawsuits drive up malpractice rates and the cost of health care. He wants nationwide caps on jury awards like California's. Victims could receive unlimited economic damages for medical care and lost wages, but there would be a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages, like pain and suffering.

"I know in order to make sure we've got good docs practicing medicine, to make sure health care is affordable, we need to stop these junk lawsuits," Mr. Bush said in September.

Blaming lawsuits for rising health costs resonates with doctors and business leaders. But the problem, critics say, is it's not true.

"When it comes to saving money for doctors, caps do not work," says consumer advocate Doug Heller.

Heller says many states with caps still see huge increases in malpractice insurance because insurance companies keep the money the caps save.

"They don't lower what doctors pay and they certainly don't save the health care system a dime," says Heller.

"One of the things I intend to do is a better job of holding down medical malpractice costs," Sen. John Kerry said in May.

Kerry would also restrict frivolous lawsuits by having expert panels review malpractice cases and by punishing lawyers who file three junk lawsuits.

"We need a national system in place that will weed out the irresponsible lawsuits without taking away patients rights," Kerry said.

"I know there are a lot of sue happy people out there, but you do have people who are sincerely hurt," says Aliya's father.

The Doziers meanwhile have this caution: Caps may deter junk lawsuits, but can also alter justice when the doctor is dead wrong.