Malpractice Bill Tightens Rules: Clears Ga. Senate, Headed for House

February 1, 2005

In an effort to try to drive down insurance premiums for doctors, the Georgia Senate has approved tighter rules for people trying to sue doctors for malpractice.

According to the Associated Press, the vote came after the state’s largest malpractice insurer, MAG Mutual, promised senators in a letter that they’d drop premiums 10 percent if the malpractice bill was approved. Doctors have been pushing for the reforms for years, saying they’re being choked by high premiums.

The measure limits awards for some damages at $750,000 for people hurt by negligent doctors, and also tweaks rules in the legal system to discourage frivolous lawsuits and encourage people to settle out of court.

The bill limits pain-and-suffering awards, called non-economic damages, at $250,000 per negligent party, to a maximum of $750,000. The bill makes sweeping revisions to malpractice lawsuit rules, most of them to shield doctors from expensive litigation. The bill includes tighter rules for expert witnesses, requiring that a doctor testifying that another doctor erred be currently working in the same field.

Other changes include a penalty for people who refuse an out-of-court settlement. If someone gets an offer from an insurer, but chooses a jury trial instead, they would have to pay the doctor’s legal costs if the jury ends up awarding them about the same as the pre-trial offer. That change is intended to encourage patients to settle out of court.

There was one small nod to patient advocate groups, who argued the malpractice bill goes too far to protect doctors. The bill includes a requirement that doctors who settle any malpractice claim report the claim to the state Board of Medical Examiners. Now doctors only have to report claims over $10,000, and patient advocates say there isn’t enough being done to punish negligent doctors.

The malpractice debate is far from over, even after clearing the Senate. The House has yet to vote on the idea, and the reforms are so complicated and divisive that lawmakers expect a final version won’t be ready until the end of the session.

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