Nora Freeman Engstrom
Stanford Law School
Date Written: June 26, 2015
The latest in a long line of reform proposals, health courts have been called “the best option for fixing our broken system of medical justice.” And, if health courts’ supporters are to be believed, these specialized courts are poised to revolutionize medical malpractice litigation: They would offer faster compensation to far more people, while restoring faith in the reliability of legal decisionmaking. But these benefits are, as some leading supporters have acknowledged, “hoped for, but untested.” The question remains: Will health courts actually operate as effectively as proponents now predict?
The best evidence to answer that question comes, I suggest, from the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) — a Program that employs very similar procedures to handle very similar claims and that had, at its birth, a very similar ambition. Mining nearly three decades of previously untapped material concerning the VICP’s operation, this Article analyzes how an American compensation program that wrests jurisdiction from traditional courts has, in practice, fared. Findings are discouraging. Though the VICP and health courts share many of the same procedural innovations, those innovations, in the VICP context, have largely failed to expedite adjudications and rationalize compensation decisions. This fact carries significant implications for health courts, suggesting that they won’t operate nearly as effectively as their proponents now predict. More broadly, this study of an American no-fault regime, in action and over time, enriches — and at times complicates — current understanding of the prospects, promise, and “perceived virtues” of other specialized courts and alternative compensation mechanisms.