Doctors, patients advocate battle over capping lawsuits

By Michael Davis and Billy Corriher

With the costs of medical malpractice insurance skyrocketing, doctors and hospitals are pushing Georgia state legislators to pass a series of reforms aimed at keeping insurance costs down.

Medical professionals say that juries are awarding too much money for non-economic damages like pain and suffering in medical malpractice lawsuits.

A bill in the House of Representatives would place a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages, but opponents say that limiting awards is not the answer to the skyrocketing cost of malpractice insurance.

George Israel, president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said large awards for pain and suffering have been a big factor in higher costs for insurance premiums. Israel said the awards have forced many malpractice insurance companies to move out of the state.

He said that one Georgia-based insurance company, Mag Mutual, paid out $100 million in non-economic damages last year to just 200 people.

"What about the health care needs of the other 8 million people in Georgia?" he said.

Opponents of the legislation say there are other ways to curb the rising cost n measures that would ensure patient safety and hold practitioners more accountable.

Allison Kelly, founder of Georgia Watch, a statewide consumer advocacy group focused on insurance and banking reform, said that across-the-board settlement limits would put victims' welfare at risk.

"It creates a system that discriminates against the elderly, (those that) stay at home and retired people," she said. "They get virtually nothing to live on for the rest of their lives."

Kelly tells the story of a 17-year-old Virginia boy who was paralyzed in 1987 following routine surgery. After a medical malpractice claim against his doctors, he was awarded $1 million n the maximum amount allowed under Virginia law.

Now the boy is 34, and "his family expects the money to run out in two years," Kelly said, though doctors expect him to live to be 40 to 50 years old.

But Bill Florence, of the Georgia Coalition for Civil Justice Reform, said the cap on non-economic damages would not affect awards for lost wages and medical expenses.

Florence said protection is needed to curb "frivolous" lawsuits and excessive jury awards, which are making doctors wary of performing risky procedures.

Fewer doctors are willing to provide vital services n delivering babies, reading mammograms and working in emergency rooms n because of the risk of a costly lawsuit, Florence said.

Florence said doctors' reluctance to perform certain procedures are particularly hurting rural Georgians, who do not have access to as many health care facilities.

But many legislators are reluctant to pass a cap because of campaign contributions from trial lawyers, he said.

"That's where trial lawyers get paid," Florence said. "But other patients pay the cost."

Jonesboro attorney Robert H. Suttles said the proposed $250,000 awards cap would be unfair to patients who suffer catastrophic losses.

"I'd rather be healthy than have all the money in the world. But is $250,000 going to compensate somebody ? if they couldn't enjoy sports n couldn't enjoy daily life?" he said. "If a doctor went to have surgery and they came up paralyzed, would $250,000 compensate him for the rest of his life if he couldn't practice?"

Kelly said that if the State Medical Board is given more authority to police doctors who have repeated claims raised against them and pull the licenses of careless physicians, patients would be safer.

If doctors are held more accountable on a day-to-day basis, she said that premiums would drop because of a reduction in case filings. "More scrutiny will reduce premiums," she said.

Dr. Steve Muller, vice president of medical affairs at Southern Regional Medical Center in Riverdale, said that bad doctors are already "weeded out" by peer review and because they have trouble getting any malpractice insurance at all.

Muller said that if lawsuit reforms are not passed, more doctors will leave Georgia because of the high costs of malpractice insurance in the state, going to states that have already taken steps to curb lawsuits.

"My concern is for the future," he said. "It's already very difficult to recruit physicians to Georgia."