The Real Effects Of Tort Reform: The Story Of Frank Cornelius

Years ago on our radio show, Legal Talk, I had on as a guest Frank Cornelius. Frank was a lobbyist for the insurance industry in Indiana in the 1970’s. Due to his efforts, a law was passed in Indiana placing a $500,000 cap on medical malpractice awards for pain and suffering. He believed he was doing good work as it would reduce healthcare costs in the state. In 1989, Frank underwent knee surgery and developed an infection. His condition worsened, and he had a second procedure in which a surgeon used the wrong instrument and pierced the main vein from his legs to his heart. When another physician attempted to save his life, that physician punctured his left lung.

As a result of medical malpractice, Frank was left wheelchair-bound and on a morphine drip. His marriage ended, and he was sentenced to a life of pain at the age of forty-nine. Despite Frank’s future life of pain and suffering, his malpractice award was reduced to $500,000. After payment to his lawyers and the cost of the malpractice litigation, he was not left with much. If Frank had not changed the law in Indiana, his settlement would have been in the millions.

In 1994, Frank wrote a letter which was published in the New York Times. He talked about his efforts in supporting tort reform and wrote, “Make no mistake, damage caps are arbitrary, wholly disregarding the nature of the injury and the pain experienced by the plaintiff… Medical negligence cannot be reduced simply by restricting consumers’ legal rights.” Frank died the year following the letter. When individuals act as advocates to reduce consumer rights while working for insurance company, big corporations, tobacco, the drug industry, etc., they have to realize that there are consequences to their actions. I know of no better story to show those consequences than the story of Frank Cornelius.

Steve Karp

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