House, Senate wrestle with civil liability changes

By Justin Boron and Michael Davis

The Georgia House Thursday passed legislation aimed at stemming the tide of jackpot jury awards in civil justice cases, but after a close vote in the Senate, the bill remains on the table for discussion.

After several close votes on higher limits on payouts in medical malpractice cases, the House imposed a $350,000 cap on jury awards for pain and suffering resulting from bad medicine. For cases involving more than one defendant doctor or hospital, the limit would be $1.05 million. But the Senate acted quickly to send the measure back to combined House and Senate committee. That chamber only last week approved a $250,000 cap.

"It was the closest we got in 2 1/2 years and the Senate rejected it," said Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, adding, "I think we've still got something to work with and I think it's needed."

Hospital and insurance groups have pushed for caps for years saying that a limit on jury awards for noneconomic damage, or pain and suffering, is necessary to reduce skyrocketing liability insurance premiums which they say are driving doctors out of Georgia. But opponents of the limits say caps will only serve to limit patients' rights to seek justice for shoddy medical treatment and put a price on life and limb.

"The bottom line is this - caps have not been proven to lower malpractice insurance premiums for doctors and hospitals, but they have been proven to limit access to justice," said Matthew Monroe, a spokesman for the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch.

But hospital groups say high insurance premiums cut patients' access to services.

In 2004, Southern Regional Medical Center spent $7.6 million on insurance costs, up from $2.3 million four years earlier, said hospital spokesman Rick Smith. That same year, one out of three neurologists at Southern Regional backed out of emergency room services, and at least three physicians had taken early retirement to escape rising premiums, he said.

Smith said he was ecstatic with the way the legislature responded to the calls of hospitals statewide.

"It was a difficult decision for lawmakers to make, but when came down to it they listened to the hospitals," he said.

Democratic state Rep. Mike Barnes of Hampton voted for the bill, but reluctantly. He said he supported the raise in the Senate-approved cap because he didn't think limits on malpractice effectively deal with the root problem.

"Too many times we just try to fix everything with one bill. We needed a broader approach," he said. "We could've worked everything out without caps," he said.

Monroe, also an opponent of caps, said, "What we haven't been talking about is what produces medical malpractice suits: medical malpractice," he said.

Rep. Howard Mosby, D-Atlanta, a hospital administrator whose district includes part of northern Henry County, said he is in favor of caps, but would like to see more exemptions that would allow for higher awards in cases of death or where doctors or hospitals are found especially negligent - a departure from some of his colleagues.

"Whatever benefit $250,000 was going to give, $350,000 would give," said Mosby, an administrator at Grady Health Systems. "For a hospital doing this type of charity work, this still helps the taxpayers," he said.

The bill will go to a conference committee made up of House and Senate members before coming back up for a vote. Legislation must pass both chambers in the same form before being sent to the governor.

"I voted to accept it. I think it was an improvement slightly over what we had done before," said Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Forest Park, who voted Thursday to accept the House's version. "However I don't mind it going to conference because maybe we can improve it some more. I know we've got to do something to curb the spiraling cost and I'll vote for it again."

While the bill passed overwhelmingly in the House, members narrowly defeated an amendment to cap awards at $750,000.

Starr said the House's narrow defeat of that cap may have played a role in some Senators' decision to renegotiate the bill, thinking they may be able to raise it from $350,000.

"It's clear that the legislature is open to discussing changes to the caps," said Georgia Watch's Monroe.

Arguing against the caps, Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, who was removed from his position as House Judiciary Chairman last year after keeping a similar bill bottled up, said doctors should be held more accountable.

"They're not God, and they're not all-powerful, and when they make mistakes we have to hold them responsible," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.