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Medical malpractice reform is again on the agenda in Trenton, this time without the jabs and ripostes between doctors and lawmakers that stanched the initiative last year. Two Assembly committees have approved a set of bills that the Medical Society of New Jersey can live with. The legislation would abate doctors’ insurance premiums and, while not capping malpractice awards, allow trial judges to modify and/or to stagger payments for verdicts of more than $1 million. The legislation would create a three-year, $90 million subsidy fund to help defray malpractice insurance premiums, especially for doctors in high-risk practice areas. The fund would be paid for by a $50 surcharge on the professional licenses of doctors, lawyers, dentists, optometrists and chiropractors. The state Department of Banking and Insurance would have to approve any insurance premium increase of more than 15 percent. There would be additional hamstrings on bringing malpractice suits. Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses would have to be licensed in the same field as the defendant physician, and the statute of limitations in birth-related cases would begin to run when the child turned 13. But there are some good tidings for plaintiffs’ lawyers, too. They would find it easier to learn how many times a physician has been sued for malpractice and the outcomes of those cases. And doctors found liable in a large number of cases or the subject of a large number of settlements may not be able to take advantage of the subsidy program. Last November, the Medical Society, angry that Democrats refused to support its call for a cap on noneconomic damages, donated about $2 million to GOP candidates in soft Democratic districts with the hope of giving Republicans control of the Legislature. The efforts failed miserably, with the Democrats taking control of both houses. Legislative aides say there is no way caps will be considered by the 211th Legislature and that any resurgence of that pitch by the Medical Society could mean that malpractice insurance reform “comes off the table.” The medical society has decided to go along, realizing it has little other choice. The Health and Human Services and Appropriations committees have recommended passage of the bills, A-50, A-1316 and A-2214. The sponsors are Majority Leader Joseph Roberts, D-Camden, and Assembly members Neil Cohen, D-Union, Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, and John McKeon, D-Essex. Other Measures of NoteCharitable Immunity Rollback. The Senate Judiciary Committee on March 1 recommended passage of S-540, a proposed exception to the Charitable Immunity Act that would allow suits against churches and other charitable organizations over alleged sexual abuse of minors. The bill would overturn the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Schultz v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, 95 N.J. 530 (1984). Another section, added by the committee, would make the exception retroactive to actions for which the statute of limitations has not expired as of the bill’s effective date. The sponsor is Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex. � Environmental Prosecutor. The Office of Legislative Counsel is reviewing a bill to re-create the environmental prosecutor post, begun by Gov. James Florio but discontinued by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman as a cost-cutting measure. The prosecutor would be in, but not of, the Department of Law and Public Safety. The Assembly Appropriations Committee will consider the bill, A-1289, after the legislative counsel completes its review. McKeon is the sponsor. � Professional Fraud. On Feb. 9, the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee recommended passage of A-2088, which would overturn the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Macedo v. Dello Russo, A-93-02, that the Consumer Fraud Act does not apply to false or misleading advertising by “learned professionals,” such as doctors. The bill would permit people claiming to have been misled to sue for damages. It provides for fines as high as $10,000 for a first offense and $20,000 for a second one. And since only the Court can regulate lawyers, the bill urges the adoption of rules to ensure that attorneys will fall under its aegis. Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, D-Essex, is the sponsor.

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