House Axes Liability Cap for Death, Disfigurement

By EMERY P. DALESIO | April 22, 2011

Doctors whose negligence causes patient death or disfigurement wouldn’t be protected by the same liability limits placed on other malpractice lawsuits, the state House decided Wednesday.

The House voted 91-27 to approve a package aimed at limiting what doctors who harm patients must pay. The bill now returns to the Senate, where it could get final approval or wind up in a committee to negotiate changes.

The measure passed easily after bipartisan pressure led to removing liability limits in cases that cause serious and tangible harm to a patient, such as loss of limbs or vision or death, that can’t be measured by lost income or cost of future care. Pain and suffering and other kinds of non-economic harm would see jury awards capped at $500,000.

Limiting non-economic penalties was needed to ensure predictability for healthcare businesses and insurers, said Rep. Johnathan Rhyne, R-Lincoln, who shepherded the legislation through the House. Capping liability prevents different juries from deciding on different awards for the same set of circumstances, and the limits should apply for all types of injuries, he said.

“If we’re going to have certainty and rationality it needs to apply to everything,” Rhyne said. “Whether or not there is a cap should be decided in a deliberative body like this, free from any pity or sympathy.”

Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe, said lawsuits need to be limited because they are a drain on society. He said he lives in a small town and couldn’t face friends or neighbors who were shut off from holding doctors accountable for disfigurement, loss of a body part, permanent injury or death.

“These are permanent, serious injuries to our friends and neighbors,” he said.

The bill also would require a higher standard than other kinds of tort lawsuits, which determine responsibility for harm and decide whether compensation is deserved, to prove medical malpractice occurred in a hospital emergency room.

Bill supporters said limits on medical malpractice lawsuits are needed to reduce spending on tests and procedures that doctors perform to decrease the chances they’ll be sued. Opponents said the limits harm the ability of patients to hold doctors responsible for their actions.

Malpractice lawsuits cannot be filed unless a plaintiff finds a doctor in the same field to review medical records and determine that negligence caused a person’s injuries.

“The deck is stacked heavily against the injured patient as it is,” said Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, whose law firm is one of the state’s largest suing health care providers.

A study of 10 North Carolina hospitals published last fall in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that “harm to patients resulting from medical care was common” over a six-year period ending in 2007, and amounted to several thousand cases of medical mistakes.

The number of malpractice cases filed in state courts has averaged nearly 480 a year over the past five years, with an average of 64 cases getting to trial before a jury or judge, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

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