Ga. Legislative Session Ends, Leaving Tort Reform Matter Unresolved

April 19, 2004

The Georgia General Assembly wrapped up the second and final year of its 2003-2004 legislative session this month, primarily focusing on the 2005 budget, which overshadowed the many insurance-related bills that were introduced.

“Although the Assembly approved next year’s budget, there is still a $57 million shortfall over indigent defense funding,” said Robert Herlong, southeastern regional manager for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI). “There is a good chance Governor Perdue will call the legislature back during the spring or early summer to settle the issue, and perhaps take up some of the insurance bills still left standing.”

More than 1,400 bills were introduced during the second half of the 2003-2004 session, including many new insurance bills, several of which dealt with tort reform. However, at the end of the 40-day session, only a few insurance-related bills passed. All bills that failed to pass are essentially dead. Existing legislation will have to be re-introduced next year or during a special session this year.

Several tort reform bills were introduced, including legislation sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Coalition for Civil Justice Reform; by Speaker Coleman’s Special Advisory Committee on Civil Justice; by Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, and by several other House and Senate legislators throughout the year. However no significant legislation was passed that changed joint and several liability, expert witness, noneconomic damages, or emergency room liability.

Members of a House-Senate conference committee met several times over the last few days of the session to try and reach a compromise on H.B. 1028, Rep. Alan Powell’s bill, that originally would have created a state authority to administer a malpractice insurance pool for small hospitals.

However, the bill was amended in the Senate to include emergency room liability, joint and several liability apportionment, and expert witness standards. An agreement was never reached on the Legislation and the Conference Committee was dissolved by the Senate during the last hour of the 40th day.

Only two bills, S.B. 604 and H.B. 1519, made any changes to the law that came close to civil justice reform. S.B. 604, sponsored by Sen Don Thomas, indemnifies law enforcement and emergency personnel who contract hepatitis, meningitis, or tuberculosis, which results in disability or death, to collect disability payments from work in the line of duty. H.B. 1519, known as the “Common Sense Consumption Act,” limits liability for restaurants and food manufacturers and distributors for potential claims arising out of obesity.

Several workers’ compensation bills passed, including:

· H.B. 1278, which provides that a guardian for a minor or an incompetent claimant entitled to workers’ comp benefits may be appointed by a court other than the probate court in the state; and

· H.B. 1579, which will dissolve the subsequent injury trust fund by 2008 and requires an actuarial study on the fund to be completed by July of next year.

Motor vehicle insurance bills that passed include:

· H.B. 217, which increases the child safety belt law to children up to 7 years old;

· H.B. 547, which removes certain limitations concerning the prohibition on insurance premium surcharges for public safety employees who are involved in auto accidents; and

· H.B. 1499, which reduces the amount of advance payment for motor vehicle insurance coverage from the first 60 days of coverage to the first 30 days of coverage.

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