Ga. Med-Mal Bill Stalls in House, Discussion to Continue on Monday

February 11, 2005

Georgia, doctors, lawyers and insurance lobbyists stood shoulder-to-shoulder outside the House of Representatives chamber during a heated three-hour discussion yesterday about Senate Bill 3, which aims to cap non-economic damages in medical malpractice suits. Discussion of the bill will continue Monday afternoon when the Legislature reconvenes.

According to the Macon Telegraph, representatives voted 136-34 for the bill, after approving an amendment to cap medical malpractice pain and suffering awards at $350,000 per physician defendant, or $1.05 million total if more than one health care facility were liable. The Senate version had caps of $250,000 and $750,000.

An amendment with a $750,000 cap, but with no cap for deaths or catastrophic injuries, failed by a single vote, 86-85, with many Republicans bucking their party leadership.

GOP leaders had streamlined the bill’s passage, banning floor amendments in the Senate and allowing only four amendments in the House. Repeatedly, opponents referred to the bill as a “train coming down the tracks.”

But the Senate voted 28-27 to agree with the House’s version, one short of the 29 votes needed for passage. “The train got derailed along the way,” said Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon.

A second Senate vote to agree could come Monday. The Senate could instead vote to disagree, forcing a conference committee to iron out the differences, or insist on its version and send the bill back to the House. If the House insisted, that would also bring on a conference.

Proponents of the bill say it will reduce the number and cost of liability lawsuits by eliminating full liability of partially liable “deep-pocket” defendants, and by instituting a “loser-pays” provision when an offer of judgment is turned down.

“This is an opportunity to do something for every person in your district,” Majority Leader Rep. Jerry Keen, (R-St. Simons) told the Telegraph. “This is a litigation tax cut.”

Keen said tort litigation drives up the costs of goods and services for everyone, and costs every U.S. citizen an estimated $850 per year. Torts are civil suits involving injury or harm to someone, as opposed to contract disputes.

The outnumbered opponents of the bill argued such a “tax cut” is illusory and said that the changes are unfair, because those too poor to pay for a lawyer up front could lose access to the courts. Other plaintiffs might settle for a lower monetary figure because they couldn’t afford the risk of paying a corporation’s defense attorneys.

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