New bill could curb medical malpractice suits

The seal in the North Carolina Legislative Building

March 1, 2011 10:45:43 AM PST
On Tuesday afternoon, a new bill to curb medical malpractice lawsuits made its way out of committee and to the North Carolina Senate floor despite howls of protests from activists, Democrats and some conservatives.There are two very controversial parts of the bill -- one that it would cap damages in medical malpractice lawsuits and two, it would give near immunity to emergency room doctors.

The North Carolina Senate judiciary committee has been going back and forth on both issues.

As far as ER doctors go, the bill would raise the bar to bring a suit to what's called gross negligence. So, they'd either have to intentionally hurt a patient or be incapacitated drunk or on drugs. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to be sued - even if bad judgment or bad decision making led to a serious problem.

Supporters say it's about protecting doctors.

"I truly believe they're doing the best they possibly can with the circumstances and conditions presented to them," Sen. Tom Apodaca said.

But critics say the bill would leave victims of emergency room malpractice without anywhere to turn. And they also say it shouldn't limit how much money victims can get in medical lawsuits.

The bill puts the cap at $500,000, which critics say isn't nearly enough in certain cases, and is unconstitutional.

"It's an extreme intrusion of the government to step into the jury box and take away the rights of citizens and present their case to a jury and the rights of jurors to hear the evidence and make a decision," said Burton Craige with NC Advocates for Justice.

At least one high profile conservative is siding with critics on the cap - former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake.

She said, "Under the North Carolina constitution, only juries have the power to decide verdicts. Not politicians. Not legislators. The government cannot overrule juries, but that is precisely what Senate Bill 33 does."

The bill will likely be on the Senate floor for a vote on Wednesday.

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