Archive for the ‘The Oregonian’ Category

Court fee increases threaten middle and low-income Oregonians access to civil justice system

The Oregon budget crisis created a number of problems and many are still coming home to roost. Now the bill has come for the civil justice system.

Effective yesterday, the Oregon Judicial Department implemented new fees for filing lawsuits and routine court matters. Here’s a report in today’s Oregonian.

The new fee system is confusing, in that it’s hard to calculate how much it costs to file a lawsuit. Filing fees morph and shift based upon the amount of money at issue in the case, the number of plaintiffs (people suing) and the number of defendants (people being sued).

The reality is that the new fee increases will have profound impacts, including:

  • For middle- and low-income Oregonians, a day in court will become an unaffordable luxury
  • For attorneys representing people, risks of missing deadlines because fees weren’t paid on time and filings were rejected
  • For attorneys handling contingent fee cases: limiting representation to affluent or limiting who can handle these cases to affluent attorneys who can afford the increased fees
  • For our beloved Oregon, doling out justice based on ability to pay.

It’s that last one that rankles me. Look, it would have been easy to limit my work to rich clients. There’s nothing like the smug security of having corporate clients who pay by the hour for talent.  You get paid as you go. No pay, no go.

But some of us chose a different route because we were committed to a view that justice shouldn’t be limited to corporations that have the money to pay for expensive law firms. For those of us who heard and heeded the different drumbeat, we found ways to answer the call by working on contingent fee cases or finding our way to public interest jobs. That’s how Oregon consumers find skilled and capable representation.

These new fees will make it harder to handle cases.  In addition to higher filing fees, we now have a pay as you go system. Want to file a motion? Pay another filing fee. Need a judge to sign an order? You’re going to have to pay for that. We’re going to wind up in a system in which only the affluent can afford to go forward. Those without means or a very affluent attorney who can front all costs will be turned away.

Some of my colleagues want to blame the Oregon legislature and the Oregon judicial branch for turning to this model of paying for access to justice. Sorry, but it’s not that simple. The reality is that Oregon has suffered mightily in this massive recession and our tax base that relies heavily on income taxes has eroded with the profound increase in unemployment. We lack political will and wisdom to understand that public goods like education, clean water and a civil justice system cost money. That means taxes. It is popular to bash politicians and more so to oppose taxes. All that is well and good and easy. Until you need the cops. Or good schools. Or your day in court.

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Pentagon inspector general to review Army’s handling of troops sodium dichromate exposures

As reported in The Oregonian, the Pentagon’s inspector general announced yesterday an investigation into U.S. troops exposures to sodium dichromate in Iraq in 2003. Reprint here at the Oregonlive website.  Kudos and appreciation to Julie Sullivan of The Oregonian. She grabbed this story early and hasn’t let go. It’s nice to be reminded of the importance of old-school journalists.

As noted in the linked article, I’m appreciative of our elected officials’ commitment to these issues. It’s a long road ahead for our vets. I’m betting that they will stay engaged.

Here’s why I say that. It’s pure supposition on my part, but I  imagine that Senator Wyden, Senator Merkley, Representative Schrader and state Sen. Shields share my motivation.

I can’t sit quietly and watch another generation of soldiers face the ravages of toxic exposures.  The Agent Orange stain of our Vietnam-era vets taught many of us that we must advocate for our soldiers.  This is especially true of those–like me–who did not serve in the armed forces.

So this is a positive step. We’ll watch and see and hope that the inspector general digs in to this horror. For the present, we’ll simply continue the efforts toward finding justice and protection for our vets and their families. They served and sacrificed. How we respond is a story that is still unfolding. I hope that when the story is written, all of us–the politicians, the lawyers, the journalists, and the citizens–can look back and say that we did our parts for our soldiers.

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Patient safety lost in health care debate

Lots of noise going back and forth about health care reform, but one issue, which is the elephant in the room, is getting little coverage.

Back in 1999, the Institute of Medicine issued this report on the horrifying death toll caused by preventable medical errors. “Horrifying” isn’t over the top. We’re talking about 44,000-98,000 hospital deaths per year in U.S. hospitals caused by preventable medical errors. You would think those kinds of numbers would lead to instant action and a reduction, but the problem has gotten worse.

Kudos and appreciation to the Hearst news organization for an update. Unfortunately, it shows that 200,000 per year die from preventable medical errors. States, including Oregon,  have refused to pass mandatory hospital safety reporting laws.  Apparently, no one thinks that mandatory reporting of  preventable medical death information would change hospital practices.

The Oregonian ran with the story in its Saturday edition, but they somehow decided to leave it off of their website. That’s a shame, as they did a detailed local breakout.

So now we’re talking about health care reform. But for all the heat and light and jabber about government programs, single payers, “death panels,” and the like, no one is talking about reducing preventable medical harm.

So the better question is what about that elephant?

Why do we allow people seeking health care reform to demand limits on lawsuits when they refuse to talk about quality of care? With this level of deaths, why do we tolerate people complaining about “defensive medicine?”

If the medical and insurance industries want to hide errors, the one thing that must remain untouched is the right to trial by jury. Otherwise, we simply have an elephant in the room that will stomp another 200,000 people next year with no consequences. We need to be able to hold the medical and insurance industries accountable. And if the government will take no action, the jury is the next best thing.

Next time someone complains about malpractice cases, the practice of defensive medicine or frivolous lawsuits, ask them about the 200,000 deaths per year. If that number is too big, let’s break it down. It’s well over 500 people per day dead from preventable medical errors.  Wow.

The Hearst news system’s reporting at Dead By Mistake is timely, substantive and informative. In short, this is journalism at its best.

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