N.C. Lawmakers Approve Cap on Medical Malpractice Damage Awards

July 24, 2007

North Carolina lawmakers made a mild breakthrough last week on medical malpractice reform, agreeing to limit monetary damages in certain health care negligence cases.

The bill would cap monetary damages in negligence cases involving a health care provider at $1 million, but only for those who agree to go to binding arbitration. The measure is supported by the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers and the N.C. Medical Society.

The bill was unanimously approved by the House and sent to Gov. Mike Easley, marking a success in the often antagonistic relationship between physicians and trial lawyers. Physicians that support capping monetary damages blame malpractice lawsuits for rising insurance premiums, but trial attorneys argue that patients need financial protection for mistakes made by bad physicians.

The legislation allows plaintiffs and defendants — such as a doctor, hospital or other health care provider — to have their case settled by an arbitrator selected by both sides or by the court at the parties’ request.

Under the bill, hearings would begin within 10 months of the parties agreeing to enter into arbitration. The arbitrator would have to issue a decision within two weeks of the hearing’s close, and all monetary damages would be limited to $1 million. Few appeals would be allowed.

Between 1998 and 2006, an average of 600 medical malpractice lawsuits were filed each year in North Carolina and the median award for cases decided by a jury was slightly more than $300,000, according to a report by the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers.

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