Over at Point of Law, Walter Olson points to a story on medical malpractice panels in New Hampshire and Maine. So I wanted to share New York’s experience with the panels before they were disbanded in the mid-1980s shortly after I started practicing law. I did a few of these before they hit the trash heap.
These panels included a judge, an attorney experienced in handling medical malpractice cases, and a doctor from each speciality that was sued. If there was a unanimous finding, the finding would go to the jury.
The first, and most significant, problem was finding doctors to sit on the panels, which is what caused years of delay to an already protracted litigation system.
The second problem was that, unlike jurors, there was no way to question panelists regarding any biases they might have, the way a juror might be questioned.
The third problem was that that no live witnesses appeared before the panels and there was no cross-examination. Submissions were made confidentially, and a short hearing was held that might last an hour at most. This format made it it impossible to resolve disputed issues of fact.
The fourth problem arose when, if a unanimous panel finding went to the jury, the losing side would invariably subpoena the doctor that appeared, and then cross-examine the physician on the flaws in the hearing that took place. Essentially, that the panel never saw a single witness and was therefore unable to resolve disputed factual issues. (This, in turn, made it even less likely that doctors would want to sit on panels.)
The end effect was years of delay, more expense, and more complicated trials.
It was, in essence, a resounding failure.
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