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Malpractice cases: New York tries speedier resolution
New York is trying judge-directed negotiations to see if malpractice cases can be resolved faster with a judge prodding the parties towards a settlement.

As the Washington Post explains it, “when a medical malpractice lawsuit is filed, a judge with expertise in medical matters becomes the point person for that case. He or she supervises the entire process and brings the parties together as often as necessary to discuss the case and help broker a settlement.”

The pilot program is funded in part by a $3 million grant from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Observers hope it provides a national model for handling medical liability cases.

Judge Douglas McKeon, an administrative judge in the Supreme Court of Bronx County, who pioneered this approach in 2002, says a judge overseeing the entire case can make sure the parties don't dawdle over such things as procedural meetings to set up discovery dates. The Post adds the program started with an agreement between McKeon and the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, which operates 11 public hospitals, and now a similar program is getting underway in Buffalo.

“The judge facilitates negotiations but doesn't impose a settlement amount. If the parties can't agree on a figure, nothing would prohibit the plaintiff from moving ahead with a lawsuit through the court system,” the newspaper said. Judge McKeon typically settles a case in six to nine months, compared to about three years for a typical medical malpractice case.

Although some plaintiffs may receive slightly lower settlement awards, judge-directed negotiation is a good option for them as well, Leslie Kelmachter, president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, commented to the Post. "Many families would rather have 5 percent less now than (a larger amount) three years down the road," she says. Prompt resolution allows them to get financial compensation and some degree of closure, so they can move on with their lives.

Along with funding the New York program, the Federal government is also funding initiatives that encourage hospitals to disclose medical errors promptly to patients and offer fair compensation. The hope is that early disclosure and settlement with injured patients will dispose of most cases without involving the court system.