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Published: Tuesday, 12/3/2002

Panel OKs malpractice relief


COLUMBUS - Are Ohioans worried enough about losing their doctors because of skyrocketing malpractice insurance premiums to reach deeper into their own pockets to cushion the blow?

The House Civil Justice and Commercial Law Committee voted 6-3 along party lines to send the Republican-controlled House a bill instructing the state Department of Insurance to develop a plan for a state fund that would pay part of a plaintiff's jury award in a malpractice lawsuit.

Ideas for fueling the $30 million to $50 million fund include fees paid by doctors, surcharges on the insurance policies of all Ohioans, and portions of punitive damages awarded to plaintiffs in medical malpractice lawsuits.

“This is the solution to the high medical malpractice premiums that doctors are paying,” said the committee's chairman, Rep. John Williamowski (R., Lima). “Would you be willing to pay $1 out of your pocket to keep your doc?”

The committee attached the language to a controversial Senate bill limiting the amount that juries may award malpractice plaintiffs for noneconomic damages - such intangibles as pain, suffering, and mental anguish - at $500,000.

In cases involving catastrophic injury - those involving blindness, loss of limb, or some other permanent disability - the cap would be $1 million, or $15,000 for each year of the plaintiff's estimated life span, whichever is greater.

The proposal would not limit economic damages covering the injured patient's lost wages, medical care, or physical therapy.

The bill is scheduled for a full House vote today and is likely to end up in a joint Senate-House conference committee to work out a compromise with the Senate's versions.

Like the attempts at tort reform that have come before it, this measure will probably be challenged in court.

“The caps are the most susceptible to arguments of unconstitutionality,” said Richard Mason, executive director of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers. “To us, trial by jury means the jury makes the decision based on the facts for liability and damages and makes an award. ... This violates the right to trial by jury.”

Mr. Williamowski said he expects the General Assembly early next year to adopt a plan for the fund covering excess malpractice awards. In noncatastrophic cases, the amount of a jury award over $350,000 up to $500,000 cap would be paid by the fund rather than the doctor or his insurance company.

In catastrophic cases, the fund would pay awards in excess of $500,000 but below the $1 million cap.

He said the plan is designed to provide immediate premium relief to doctors.

Dr. Damon Whitfield, an emergency-room physician at Mount Carmel Hospital in Columbus, said the annual malpractice insurance premium for his 30-physician corporation has risen from $275,000 in 2000 to an estimated $800,000.

“Everybody is for patient's rights,” he said. “But the lotto for pain and suffering is just unacceptable. In places like California and Michigan, where they have capped limits, it works.”

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