Medical Malpractice Legislation Passes House in Tennessee

April 7, 2008

Supporters of legislation that seeks to limit frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits say they’re pleased to see their efforts paying off after several years.

House lawmakers voted 93-1 for the bill that includes requiring defendants be given 60 days notice before a lawsuit is filed. The Senate unanimously passed a similar bill last year.

“It’s been a five year struggle on this legislation,” said Rep. Doug Overbey, a Maryville Republican and the bill’s main sponsor. “It is gratifying to see a nearly unanimous vote on it, especially after last year.”

A bipartisan effort fell apart in the House last year over an amendment that would have changed the so-called “locality rule” for which medical experts can testify in malpractice trials.

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.

Rep. Rob Briley, the bill’s co-sponsor, had 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.

That measure was not included in the legislation that passed, but Overbey said the bill is still effective because of the notification requirement and other measures, such as requiring attorneys to have an independent medical expert evaluate the merits of a case before filing suit.

He said providing notice at least two months before a lawsuit is filed could actually help resolve the case.

“It would allow the proposed defendant to say ‘No, it wasn’t me, you’ve got the wrong person, or you’re misreading the medical records,”‘ Overbey said. “So, it may lead to suits not even being filed.”

However, Rep. Henry Fincher, the lone dissenting voter, said he doesn’t think the legislation is necessary because “our courts already have rules to weed out bad or weak cases.”

“I’m a strong supporter of the jury process,” said the Cookeville Democrat. “Although I’m pleased with the compromise, I don’t feel … this was really necessary.”

Russ Miller, vice president of the Tennessee Medical Association, said the need for the legislation became apparent several years ago after a summer study committee found that roughly 80 percent of malpractice lawsuits in Tennessee end in no payouts to the plaintiffs.

“What we hope is that we get rid of the glut of suits that have been a problem in Tennessee,” Miller said.

Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville agreed.

“Those cases … cost the taxpayer money, because the health care providers have to pay lawyers to defend them whether they’re meritless or not,” said Norris, the main sponsor of the Senate bill. “And those costs get passed on to average Tennesseans.”

Overbey said the legislation is very similar to a version passed in the Senate. Neither bill caps the amount of money victims could be awarded for damages. Two amendments recommending a cap of $350,000 were withdrawn from the House version.

The legislation now has to go back to the Senate for concurrence before heading to the governor for his consideration. But supporters say they don’t expect any problems.

“We’re extremely optimistic that it should not have difficulty,” Miller said.

Read the full text of HB1993/SB2001 on the General Assembly’s Web site.

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