Massachusetts Personal Injury Cases: What Kind of Medical Bills Should Juries See? – Part 2 of 2

In my last post, I discussed the importance of a jury being able to see the amount of medical bills that were generated to pay for a plaintiff’s medical care – vs. the amount of discounted medical bills actually paid by a health insurer (as part, of course, of a suit alleging injuries caused by a defendant’s negligence). At trial in July 2006, in the case I blogged about previously, the defendant (Griffith) argued that because the plaintiff (Law) did not have to pay the full $112,269 that was billed for her care by her medical providers, only the lower, discounted figure that was actually paid by her health insurer – $16,387.14 – should be shown to the jury for the purpose of their assessing any damages. In that Superior Court case, the judge in that case agreed with the defendant – a highly unusual ruling, given state precedent in these cases. The result: The jury was only allowed to see the $16,387.14 figure. And the result of that? The jury awarded this plaintiff – who suffered substantial injuries which generated over $112,000.00 in medical bills – only $48,500. Undaunted, the plaintiff appealed this judge’s ruling to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, and that court ruled that the Superior Court judge erred on the medical bills issue, and ordered a new trial. Not to be outdone, the defendant then petitioned the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) for a final answer, and that is where the case sits now. How’s that for some “legal tennis?” Not uncommon.

As a Boston injury lawyer, I can assure you that the stakes behind this case are enormous: Juries are not “experts,” or vocational economists, in case valuation. When assessing damages that they might wish to award a plaintiff for personal (physical) injuries, they rely on the amount of the medical bills put before them. If they see a total figure that is relatively small (i.e., the amount of medical expenses actually paid,) as opposed to a much higher figure (i.e., the amount of medical expenses billed,) they will intentionally reduce the amount of any award they render. That is only common sense. Think of it this way: Assume you or someone you love is seriously injured due to someone else’s negligence – it could be a car accident, a slip-and-fall injury, or any variety of injuries. Assume that the medical expenses involved in the treatment of these injuries amount to $100,000. That figure reflects a number of things, but most importantly, it reflects and illustrates the severity of the injuries suffered. This is key for any jury reviewing the matter, later – when all the physical results of those injuries are not always visible to the eye. Assume that the plaintiff’s health insurer negotiated with the medical providers, to pay 20 cents on the dollar – a total of $20,000. Now, assume that instead of the jury being allowed to see these $100,000 in medical expenses, they are only allowed to see only what the insurance company actually paid – $20,000.

Do you think such a jury would view your injuries as being as severe as they actually were, if it sees medical expenses of only $20,000? It won’t. Appearances are everything to juries; they are comprised of human beings, and as my late father used to caution me, “You cannot remove the human element” in any trial. It’s unavoidable.

In this legal debate, the insurance industry is “at it again.” In essence, this is one more attempt by the insurance industry to enact more “tort reform” – this time through judicial decision, rather than legislative enactment. Actually, two types of insurance industries are at work here: The health insurance companies want to be able to use their economic muscle to “negotiate” medicals bills down with hospitals and doctors, to pay them just cents on the dollar for medical bills. As if that weren’t bad enough, the liability insurance companies – the ones who pay jury awards and settlements – want to come in after the health insurers are through hacking down a patient’s medical bills, and allow juries to only see medical expense actually paid, not billed.

All this may seem confusing to a non-lawyer. But the impact of this decision on Massachusetts personal injury suits will be serious and wide-ranging. Unlike a bill before the legislature, there is nothing any non-lawyers can do to affect the outcome of this decision.

All the public, and the plaintiff’s trial bar who stand up for them, can do, is wait, and hope. I’ll keep you posted. Oh, and by the way – Happy New Year to all my readers. Let’s hope that 2010 is a better year, in many ways, economic, social and otherwise, than was 2009.