Are medical malpractice lawyers the new marquee villains in Bush’s war on terrible litigation?

Todd A Smith is one of the nation’s leading medical malpractice lawyers, renowned and feared in the courtroom, having extracted a lengthy string of multimillion-dollar settlements and verdicts from doctors, hospitals and insurers over the years. Though wealthy even by the standards of his profession, Mr. Smith, 55, seems to have lost none of the intensity and passion that fuel his 12- to 14-hour workdays and make him a persuasive trial lawyer.

Seated in his law firm’s conference room, with an Olympian view high above Lake Michigan, Mr. Smith recited the details of his first courtroom victory in the summer of 1977, when he was a $12,000-a-year assistant public defender in the Cook County criminal courts. The defendant, he recalled, was an American Indian who was accused of armed robbery in a case that was based mainly on his race. The man was identified as the robber, for example, in a lineup that included him and a collection of off-duty, white police officers. “It was terribly unfair,” Mr. Smith said.

What drives Mr. Smith now, he says, is what drove him then: a desire to seek justice for people who need it, whether criminal defendants too poor to hire lawyers or victims of medical lapses whose lives have been ruined and face huge bills for care. “You can make a significant contribution to someone’s life, someone who might be in desperate straits,” he explained. “That’s as rewarding as it gets for me. It’s not really, or mostly, about money.”

The Bush administration wants to make Mr. Smith’s profession far less financially rewarding. Medical malpractice lawyers are cast as the marquee villains in the administration’s war against what it regards as a litigious culture run amok. If there were a face in the bull’s-eye in this political battle, it would be Mr. Smith’s. He is not only a big-name medical malpractice lawyer, but he is also serving this year as the president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the principal advocacy and lobbying group for trial lawyers. And within conservative circles and inside the White House, the term “trial lawyer” is an epithet.

This month, the administration won the first round in its fight to curb litigation, as Congress passed legislation to sharply restrict class-action lawsuits against companies. Next up is medical malpractice. In his re-election campaign, Mr. Bush repeatedly decried “junk lawsuits” as the bane of the nation’s doctors. The issue was deftly framed, and the subtext was clear: greedy lawyers were attacking the Marcus Welbys of America, good doctors doing their best.

In a speech last month in Illinois, Mr. Bush again called for strict limits on medical malpractice suits, including “a hard cap of $250,000” on what patients could recover for non-economic damages like physical and emotional pain and suffering. Returning to his election-year themes, Mr. Bush said doctors “should be focused on fighting illnesses, not fighting lawsuits.”

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