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“Tort reform” looked easy in South Carolina, where Republicans control the state House, Senate and governor’s office. But, showing that all politics are local, it ran into trouble and has been sidetracked this year. It lost the support of a key lawmaker after gaffes by proponents of a full-scale tort package that included capping general damages, eliminating punitives and tossing out joint and several liability. One misstep occurred in a hearing when a doctor criticized a Wisconsin woman who has become a sort of poster child for opponents of making it harder to win big medical malpractice verdicts. The woman, Linda McDougal, hadn’t appeared in South Carolina. But she had testified before Congress and appeared on morning news shows to describe her suit over having had surgery for cancer that she turned out not to have. McDougal, 45, said that after a routine physical, her lab work in a St. Paul, Minn., hospital was mixed up, and 48 hours later, in June 2002, she underwent a bilateral modified radical mastectomy. She claimed that if any of the physicians had compared the paperwork with the lab results she would not have been incorrectly diagnosed. McDougal v. Hospital Pathology, No. 62-C6-03-003631 (Ramsey Co., Minn., Dist. Ct.). Dr. Harry T. Metropol, former chief of surgery at Palmetto Health Baptist of Columbia, S.C., told lawmakers on March 25 that reconstructive surgery would give her better breasts. “It won’t be National Geographic, hanging to her knees,” he testified, according to legislative records. “It’ll be nice, firm breasts.” The next day one of the tort reform package’s primary sponsors, state Rep. Shirley R. Hinson, R-Goose Creek, removed her name from the legislation without explanation. SECOND INCIDENT A month later, she told a stunned House that the primary promoters of tort reform, South Carolina First, had mailed postcards to her constituents who voted in the last GOP primary, insinuating that she was a closet supporter of former President Bill Clinton. Hinson said that someone representing South Carolina First spoke to her and suggested that it would stop the mailings and support her for re-election next year if she restored her name to the legislation. Refusing to name the person, she called the effort attempted bribery. Her colleagues gave her a standing ovation. House Majority Leader Richard M. Quinn Jr., R-Columbia, told newspapers, “There will be repercussions, not only for the issue but for the relationships.” Cam Crawford, director of South Carolina First, did not return phone calls over a two-week period. He has been quoted in a newspaper as acknowledging the mailings but denying that the organization attempted to bribe Hinson.

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