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Brooks Schuelke
Brooks Schuelke
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Tort Reform Heroes: Dr. Robert Zaleski

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One of my favorite books is Stephanie Mencimer’s Blocking the Courthouse Door — How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right To Sue. It’s not one of my favorites just because Stephanie features one of our cases in the book; instead, it’s one of my favorites because she does what few who write on tort reform actually do — research the subject. Too often, we see journalists who are all too willing to write about cases that don’t actually exist or are taken out of context. But Stephanie does a great job of actually looking at the substance of the issues.

In one chapter of her book, Stephanie writes about today’s "tort reform hero," Dr. Robert Zaleski.

If you have watched the tort reform debate, you might remember an uproar in 2003 when West Virginia doctors walked off the job to protest high malpractice insurance rates. One of the key doctors was Dr. Robert Zaleski. Dr. Zaleski became one of the stars of the movement, showing up on talk shows, CNN, and in the New York Times Magazine. Dr. Zaleski was even invited to attend a speech that President Bush gave in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he talked about out of control lawsuits threatening patient care.

But Stephanie thinks she found why Dr. Zaleski’s malpractice premiums might have been so high. It turns out that in a six year period, Dr. Zaleski had been sued fourteen times, with eight of the cases settling for total payouts of $1.7 million. And in one deposition, Dr. Zaleski admitted that he was addicted to pain medication for a substantial part of the time he was operating on people in the early 1980s. There were also allegations that in order to feed his drug habit, Dr. Zaleski wrote prescriptions for other drug addicts, who allegedly filled them and then kicked back some of the profits to the doctor.

Unfortunately, at the time, no journalists were willing to do the research on the Dr. Zaleskis of the world, and these tort reform heroes and their half-truth stories were able to start the tort reform train running.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at other issues of tort reform and the half-truths behind them.