Tenn.: Medical Malpractice Legislation Stalls in House

May 11, 2007

A bipartisan effort by Tennessee lawmakers to limit frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits fell apart Wednesday and has likely stalled for this year.

The Senate unanimously passed a similar bill last month to require attorneys to have an independent medical expert evaluate the merits of a case before filing suit. It also would have given defendants 60 days notice before a lawsuit was filed.

But the consensus fell apart in the House after Rep. Rob Briley, D-Nashville, tried to attach an amendment that would have changed the rules for which medical experts can testify in malpractice trials.

The House voted 54-43 May 9 to reject Briley’s amendment. At that point, Rep. Doug Overbey, a Maryville Republican and primary sponsor of the bill, asked that the bill be sent back to committee, and House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh granted his request.

The committee is chaired by Briley and has closed for the legislative session. It was unclear if it would re-open to reconsider the malpractice bill again.

“Everyone concurred that the Senate language was an acceptable compromise,” Tennessee Medical Association Board Chairman F. Michael Minch said in a release. “That’s why today’s actions leave us wondering why the House was not given the opportunity to accept the Senate version.”

Doctors and the Tennessee Medical Association have tried for several years to put caps on the amount of money victims could be awarded as damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, but with little success.

Damage caps have become a central part of the Republican platform in Tennessee, but since the idea had little chance in the Democrat-controlled House, Republicans had agreed to the compromise measure.

“We think we had it in the best form when it left the Senate,” said Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris, who aided in the compromise. “It looks like we won’t have that opportunity this year.”

House Minority Leader Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, said there’s still hope for the bill despite being sent back to committee. But he said its survival is uncertain if lawmakers still try to include the so-called “locality” rule.

“I think this brings us back to the compromise table,” Mumpower said. “I hope the parties will see that the Senate in a bipartisan fashion unanimously passed a clean bill. And this would have passed today, if it wasn’t for the locality rule.”

Current state law allows medical witnesses to come from any state bordering Tennessee, but requires them to be experts on the medical standards of the same or similar community where the defendant doctor practices.

Briley has argued that those rules make it too easy to discredit doctors who don’t know many specific details of how a local hospital operates, but are otherwise soundly grounded in standard statewide medical practices.

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