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Broadcast: February 11, 2003

link to printer versionThey may keep a low profile, but if you sue a doctor it’s almost always the Canadian Medical Protective Association running the show. Ninety-five percent of Canada’s doctors are members. So just how far will the CMPA go to protect a doctor's reputation?


lawyer Paul Harte
Lawyer Paul Harte used to help defend the Canadian Medical Protective Association’s doctors. He knows how the system works.
Lawyer Paul Harte was an insider. He may sue doctors now, but he used to help defend the Canadian Medical Protective Association’s doctors. He knows how the system works.

“It’s driven by protect[ing] the doctor’s reputation, almost at all costs,” he says. “If it’s necessary, they would spend $100,000 protecting the doctor against a $5,000 claim.”

“It’s a lot of time, believe me,” says lawyer Pete Mockler, who consulted with widower Mike O’Reilly. “It’s mainly a lot of time because the CMPA fights them so hard… They basically take the view that anyone suing a doctor is in the extortion business.”

Sounds outrageous, but that’s what the editors of a medical journal said 100 years ago when the CMPA was first established. “Most of these cases arise out of complete ignorance…or from a desire to extort money,” the journal read. Doctors therefore needed a “powerful and well managed protective… association” to defend them.

And that’s exactly what they got. They may keep a low profile, but if you sue a doctor it’s almost always the Canadian Medical Protective Association running the show. Ninety-five percent of Canada’s doctors are members.

Trudy and Vic Shobridge
Trudy and Vic Shobridge say their daughter Shannon is too traumatized to talk about her case. An obstetrician left six feet of gauze inside Shannon and then tried to cover it up.

So just how far will the CMPA go to protect a doctor's reputation? The legal strategy is well worn: deny the doctor did anything wrong, even when the negligence seems pretty clear.

Like the surgeon who spilled a couple hundred gallstones inside a woman's abdomen and sewed her up without noticing. The CMPA blamed her suffering on her troubled family life.

Or how about the doctor who sparked a fire on the operating table, giving his patient second-degree burns? The CMPA blamed faulty equipment.

But the judges weren’t buying it. They found both doctors negligent.

The same goes for the obstetrician who left six feet of gauze inside patient Shannon Shobridge, and then tried to cover it up:

“The doctor turned to the nurses and said ‘don’t write this down. No paperwork on this.’ And then [he] actually approached another nurse and tried to make sure that she didn't squeal on him. That's malpractice,” says lawyer Thomas Berger. But the former BC Supreme Court justice had to fight for four years to prove it.

Thomas Berger
Lawyer Thomas Berger had to fight for four years to prove Shobridge's case.
“That’s their strategy,” says Berger. “It’s, I think, coordinated across the country. It's intended to make these cases as difficult as possible for plaintiffs.”

Shannon Shobridge did eventually win her case – but at a price. The six feet role of gauze was one thing – the CMPA’s lawyer was something else.

“She’s traumatized by the whole thing,” says Shannon’s mother, Trudy – too traumatized to even talk about it.

Shannon told the court the medical complications had wrecked her career. The CMPA’s lawyer went to town on her to reduce her compensation.

“When she got into court the lawyer really beat up on her,” says Trudy. “They more or less told her that because she was dyslexic, she wasn’t bright enough to have a job.”

Margaret Ross
Margaret Ross is the CMPA’s lead lawyer, a hired gun from a $400-an-hour Ottawa law firm.

Standard practice for the CMPA says our insider, Paul Harte, and they want to make sure everyone knows it.

“Because of the way they defend cases, it has the side effect of dramatically reducing the number of medical malpractice cases that come forward,” says Harte.

Margaret Ross says the CMPA’s just doing its job. Ross is the association’s lead lawyer, a hired gun from a $400-an-hour Ottawa law firm.

ROSS: Physicians belong to the CMPA because … they want to know that they will be vigorously defended.
DISCLOSURE: “The truth is few medical malpractice plaintiff lawyers survive the CMPA’s suffocating tactics and manage to get some compensation for their clients.” This from a malpractice lawyer.
ROSS: Is there a question?
DISCLOSURE: Do you agree?
ROSS: No. There is [never a] deliberate attempt simply to delay the case.
DISCLOSURE: There’s never an attempt to do that, there’s never an attempt to “suffocate” the plaintiffs?
ROSS: Nope.
DISCLOSURE: Never.
ROSS: No.
Mike O'Reilly
Widower Mike O’Reilly wanted to sue over his wife’s drug overdose. He's given up.
Nonetheless, some complainants do give up when it comes to face the CMPA, including widower Mike O’Reilly, who wanted to sue over his wife’s drug overdose. “I’m frightened, I’ll be truthful,” he says. “What can I do with an organization that has $2 billion and probably the finest lawyers in the country? I feel defeated right away… I’m not going to sue anyone.”

And how many more Mike O’Reilly’s are there out there? No one knows for sure, but the only government report ever commissioned on the subject estimated less than ten per cent of legit cases of medical negligence are ever compensated.

The report was released in 1990. Paul Harte says nothing’s changed.

“Probably one in ten legit cases of general malpractice go forward because of the costs associated with them… There’s nine people out there who have been injured through no fault of their own, who are not being compensated.”

The CMPA does pay up on around 400 cases a year – and it can afford it. It has a $2 billion war chest. That money is also used to pay for that vigorous legal defence.

And you may be interested to know that you, the taxpayer, are footing most of the bill. Doctors pay fees to the CMPA, and those fees are then refunded by the province. Ontario doctors get around a seventy per cent refund. In B.C. some fees are one hundred per cent refundable.

Margaret Ross
"It certainly is in the public interest to have a fund that’s available to compensate them if they are harmed as a result of medical care," says Ross.
DISCLOSURE: Do you think that this is in the public’s interest?
ROSS: It certainly is in the public interest to have a fund that’s available to compensate them if they are harmed as a result of medical care. Certainly it’s in their interest.
DISCLOSURE: And it’s in the public’s interest to have an aggressive legal team that will go and try to keep these claims out?
ROSS: No, that’s not what the legal team tries to do… I’m sure that your parents told you when you were growing up that there’s always more than one side to a story.

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Originally Broadcast February 11, 2003

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