Tort Reform Bill Tabled, Task Force to Study Issue After Session

A State Senate committee tabled a bill Monday seeking to fundamentally change how medical malpractice cases are decided.

Under House Bill 141, a state-appointed board would have sole authority over malpractice claims.  The new body would determine the merit of a case and how much compensation is owed.  

Speaking before a packed room at the Capitol, the bill’s sponsor, freshman Senator Brandon Beach (R – Alpharetta), blamed rising healthcare costs on too many unnecessary medical procedures.

Beach said those could be cut down if doctors weren’t so concerned about million dollar lawsuits.

“Not all physicians practice defensive medicine, just the overwhelming majority,” said Beach.

But trial lawyers, physician groups, and consumer advocates all worked to get the bill tossed.

Former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers, who now is in private practice, testified against it.

“I’ll be very frank with you, I don’t think the act has got a snowball’s chance in Hades of standing constitutional muster. I don’t know how to make it any plainer.”

Bowers cited a 2010 state Supreme Court decision overturning a controversial law capping malpractice damages. In that case, the court unanimously ruled the law violated a person’s right to have a jury decide their case.

Bowers said the court was clear.

“You can’t do away with a right to a jury trial however benign or however noble your intentions may be,” said Bowers.

But attorney Benjamin Vinson of McKenna, Long, and Aldridge, speaking in support of the bill, insisted the current system already limits a person’s right to a jury trial.

“Unless you have $500,000 in damages or unless you have money to hire a lawyer, you can’t actually take advantage of that right to a jury trial,” said Vinson.

He said a state-appointed board would give all patients recourse, not just those with potentially high payouts.

Though unsuccessful this session, the campaign to reform the state’s malpractice system still has a pulse. The committee set up a task force to study the issue over the summer. 

At the committee meeting, several lawmakers expressed interest in a narrower bill. Senator Fran Milllar (R – Atlanta) said he thought a state-appointed board could be a good idea for malpractice cases only involving Medicare and Medicaid patients.