Settlement blitz!

Unclogging the backlog of medical-malpractice cases

Retired judges Stu Bell and Nancy Loehrer probably ought to be relaxing at a pool party, cosmopolitans in hand, the voices of angry litigants a thing of history. But instead, they, along with three other retired jurists, are holing up in District Court hearing rooms in the Regional Justice Center, trying to resolve piles of medical-malpractice lawsuits (sans martinis). So far, their work is helping to reduce the number of med-mal cases that are waiting for District Court attention—much to the relief of Chief Judge T. Arthur Ritchie Jr.

“If you’d talked to me in March, you would’ve seen fear in my eyes,” Ritchie says. “I was very nervous about whether this would work.” The Eighth Judicial District had more than 800 pending medical-malpractice cases, among a 30 percent increase in civil lawsuits generally over last year. So Ritchie appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court for some help.

The Supreme Court paid for senior judges—Bell, Loehrer, Charles Thompson, Charles McGee and Robert Estes—to devote some time to what Ritchie calls a “settlement blitz”—a marathon of medical-malpractice settlement meetings. Ritchie says they identified 109 cases that were not in statutory compliance because they were two or three years old (cases filed after 2005 are mandated to get to court in one year; cases filed prior are supposed to get to court in two years) and asked the parties if they would be willing to participate. Some weren’t scheduled to go to trial until 2011. They whittled it down to 70 cases to target in roughly a month-long focus.

So far, they’ve settled 23 cases for an aggregate settlement amount of $6 million; two cases are nearly settled, and 32 others participated but didn’t settle; 15 others are still in the works until the marathon wraps up in mid-June.

While those numbers may not sound overwhelming, in the tortoise-shuffle of court time, it’s progress.

“It’s been a great success. So much so that we’re going to do it again in November,” Ritchie says. Because the Supreme Court sponsored the effort, no District judges had to be diverted from their ordinary schedules, which are over-full. The recession, Ritchie says, increased the number of civil filings with issues such as breach of leases. “We have more cases than we can handle,” he says.

Moreover, recently more than 400 cases were filed related to the Endoscopy Center. Those cases were not among those targeted for the settlement blitz. Ritchie says they’re still deciding on the best way to handle those cases.

The senior judges are handling the med-mal settlement meetings in partners; that is, the jurists work together in pairs to work with the parties. “I think the success emanates from that. I’m not sure why, but it’s a different dynamic. And not only are they available, but they’re some of the best around,” Ritchie says.

“They’ve saved a year of judicial time with a jury,” says plaintiff attorney Gerald Gillock, who has brought eight cases to the med-mal marathon and settled six. “It works. Sometimes the doctors or insurance companies don’t come in prepared to [settle], but overall, it’s good.”

Gillock couldn’t discuss any of his cases due to confidentiality clauses. But, he says, most of his 25 other medical-malpractice clients who are awaiting trial would rather take advantage of a settlement opportunity. “Before this, there was no concentrated effort by the defendants and courts to get them resolved. This has been a significant program, and I hope it continues.”

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