New NC law makes it harder for patients to sue for malpractice

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A new study shows preventable medical mistakes kill and permanently injure thousands of patients in North Carolina every year.

The deaths are higher than homicides and car accidents combined, the report shows. But now, a new law is making it tougher for patients to sue doctors.

When Al Anken first saw an ultrasound that revealed a tumor in his kidney, his jaw dropped, he said. What upset him the most was the Charlotte doctor who took the image two years ago and missed the growth completely.

“It endangered my life and it still could present problems down the road because of a delayed diagnosis,” Anken said.

Ironically, Anken is a retired ultrasound technician who spent decades examining images like his own.

“It’s there. It’s right there. (There’s) no excuse,” he said.

Another doctor discovered the tumor earlier this year and it has since been removed.

Anken now wants to hold his previous doctor accountable for what he considers negligence. He has called every medical malpractice attorney in Charlotte, but said no one will take his case.

“I’m literally up the medical legal creek without a paddle,” Anken said.

Anken is not alone in his trouble finding an attorney.

“Any time that you restrict the rights of people to have access to the justice system, that is a flaw,” said attorney Charles Monnett.

Monnett said for every 100 patients who contact his office because of medical mistakes, only one will become a client. That’s because last year, North Carolina lawmakers passed Senate Bill 33, the latest and most stringent in a series of reforms that protect doctors against lawsuits. It also put a $500,000 cap on non-economic damages like pain and suffering.

Attorneys are more selective than ever with medical malpractice cases.

“We should have jurors actually making these decisions about what fair compensation is worth. We shouldn’t have politicians telling jurors what they can do,” Monnett said.

Supporters of the change believe it benefits all patients.

Dr. Darlyne Menscer with the North Carolina Medical Society said eliminating frivolous lawsuits will lower health care costs and bring more doctors into the state.

“Physicians believe that there is predictability in the system now,” Menscer said.

Since Senate Bill 33 was enacted less than a year ago, it’s still too early to pinpoint the effect on health care costs. But evidence does show a moderate increase of doctors in states where similar reforms have passed.

Laurie Sanders said her 6-year-old son Christopher died of oxygen deprivation in the emergency room.

She was able to get an attorney and settle with the hospital before the reform, but now is worried for other North Carolina parents who may face a similar tragedy.

“It would be much tougher for them because they have a threshold that I didn’t have to meet,” Sanders said.

Anken said he has accepted the likelihood that he will never tell his story to a jury.

For more information on Senate Bill 33, click here.