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House gives preliminary approval to bill regulating liability lawsuits

February 26, 2003
By: Melissa Maynard
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A measure to limit awards in liability lawsuits -- long backed by corporations and doctors -- won preliminary approval in Missouri's House Wednesday.

While both sides acknowledged the increase in malpractice insurance -- which has doubled or tripled in the last year in some cases -- many Democrats expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the bill in reigning in the cost of premiums, suggesting that regulation of insurance companies would be a better place to start.

The bill would regulate medical malpractice suits in a number of ways, including placing a $350,000 cap on punitive damages and a requirement that lawsuits be tried in the same area as the incident occured. This requirement aims to eliminate venue shopping, or the practice of transferring cases to areas that are known to be more sympathetic to such suits.

The bill's sponsor, Richard Byrd, R-St. Louis County, blamed the current "litigation climate" for many of the job losses that have recently been incurred in the state. Byrd said that physicians are often unable to afford malpractice insurance and are leaving the state without a sufficient number of specialists in many areas, particularly in rural regions. Byrd said the situation has reached a "crisis state" and called for passage of this bill to create jobs and ensure quality health care for Missourians.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, our current tort system costs every American $600 each year, which amounts to a $170 impact on our economy.

Byrd said the bill only affect the most frivolous lawsuits.

"The interest of a plaintive and a plaintive's attorney of receiving a second or third or forth million dollars is not as great as the state of Missouri's interest in keeping jobs and access to health care," he said.

But Rep. Cathy Jolly, D-Jackson County, said that one of the main problems with the bill is that it incorrectly assumes that people are bringing illegitimate concerns to court.

"I'm really tired of hearing about frivolous lawsuits. You can't just walk into court and file a suit willy-nilly. There are standards," Jolly said. "There are no frivolous lawsuits."

Sara Schuett, who serves as the executive director of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, agreed, stating that lawyers can only afford to take the most severe cases to court because of the cost of paying for investigation and for experts to testify.

Schuett pointed to the experience of the young girl who died last week at Duke Medical Center because of being given a heart and lung transplant that was incompatible with her blood type.

Under the provisions of this bill, Schuett said the girl's family could be rewarded a maximum of $350,000, because the damages are related to "pain and suffering" instead of financial losses due to medical costs and lost wages.

Many Democrats said that the bill would do little to decrease the cost of insurance premiums, insisting that the cause of the recent increases is attributable to insurance companies attempting to compensate for past losses by passing the cost on to purchasers, not to the lawsuits of individual plaintiffs.

Keith Bronston of the Missouri Trial Lawyer's Association said that individual plaintiffs would be the real losers if this bill becomes law.

"This is some seriously bad legislation for patients and consumer's rights," he said. "You take away a patients rights, and what do they have left? Scars and empty pockets."