Malpractice Changes Approved
RALEIGH, N.C. – A Republican-led effort to change North Carolina’s medical-malpractice rules and limit certain monetary damages for harmed patients cleared a significant hurdle Tuesday when a Senate judiciary panel recommended the measure.
A majority on the Senate committee agreed to endorse a bill that proponents argue will stabilize malpractice insurance premiums for the long term and attract more physician-specialists to work in North Carolina. The panel was meeting for the fifth time on the issue in 2 1/2 weeks.
GOP lawmakers have sought similar changes for years but they were blocked in the past by Democrats who controlled the legislature. Republicans wrested control of both chambers from Democrats last fall.
The committee measure would limit the amount of damages to $500,000 for what the bill calls “non-economic damages,” such as a patient’s pain, physical impairment and disfigurement. It doesn’t apply to compensatory damages for lost wages caused by a health care provider and punitive damages. There also would be a higher negligence standard that a patient, to win an award, would have to prove on mistakes performed in emergency rooms.
“We don’t have any idea what these ER doctors face on a Saturday night going to a major hospital and watch every situation they have to handle,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, one of the bill’s chief primary sponsors. “If that doesn’t work out, we meet every year and we can change it back. But I think this gives some certainty to the process.”
A committee majority rejected arguments by Democrats and trial lawyers that the “gross negligence” standard for treatment of emergency medical conditions would essentially give ER doctors a free pass with their actions. The current law doesn’t make any distinction between ER doctors and other physicians, who can be found negligent on “the greater weight of the evidence” presented at trial.
“We expect that (patients) will get reasonable care when they go to the ER,” said Burton Craige, a Raleigh attorney representing the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, which represents trial lawyers. “What this bill says is that there’s no obligation to provide reasonable care. There’s no obligation to meet the standards of the profession, and that’s a big change in the state of North Carolina.”
Craige’s group has called a proposed cap on non-economic damages unlawful, citing the state constitution’s provision that “the right to trial by jury in civil cases is sacred and inviolable” and would harm children, homemakers and retired patients who would be limited in compensatory damages because they do not work.
“Jurors are the proper ones to decide damages,” said Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.
The original bill had a cap of $250,000, but the limit was raised to $500,000 per plaintiff. A Nesbitt amendment that would have shifted the cap to $500,000 for each health care provider sued was defeated.
Craige’s organization has run television ads criticizing the damages cap. Patients and their family members who allege negligence attended a committee meeting urging that the cap be deleted.
The North Carolina Medical Society, which supports malpractice reform, said similar changes have been approved in at least 26 other states and can lower overall health costs for businesses. But Craige’s group argues the measure will neither lower health-care costs nor increase access to care.
The bill also would allow a party in a lawsuit to split up malpractice trials if the plaintiff seeks damages of at least $75,000. It also would allow a judge to let someone pay damages on an installment plan, rather than in a lump sum.
The state House also is considering changes to medical liability and workers’ compensation law during this session through a special committee examining the issues.
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