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After three days of last-minute negotiating and months of debate, the Georgia State House and Senate allowed a tort reform package to die Wednesday night. As the 40th and final day of the legislative session came to a close, House and Senate stewards of tort reform proposals were accusing each other of negotiating in bad faith. But there may be hope for the issue this year. Shortly after sine die, Gov. George E. “Sonny” Perdue III said he’ll consider asking the Legislature to take another look at tort reform in a special session made necessary by his vow not to sign the state’s 2005 budget. Around 10 p.m. Wednesday, the main House negotiator on tort reform, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, declared, “The Senate doesn’t want tort reform. They’ve produced no work.” She complained that senators were just cutting and pasting together old tort reform proposals, refusing to come up with a plan that would find common ground with the House. Sen. Thomas E. Price, R-Roswell, saw it differently. Earlier, he had displayed a list of differences in the Senate and House plans being shuttled between negotiators. The Senate was offering a bill that contained eight House and five Senate proposals, he said, while the House version offered only House ideas. “This shows to me they’re not negotiating in good faith,” Price said. Thomas S. Chambless, who represents the Coalition for Civil Justice Reform, a group of hospitals, doctors and businesses, accused the House of not addressing key issues and disagreed that the Senate hadn’t produced new work. He and a lobbyist for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Arthur B. “Skin” Edge IV, both former legislators, shook pages of bills that Price had produced at Oliver as she stormed out of the Senate declaring an end to the negotiation process. What are these? they shouted at her. DOCTORS DISAPPOINTED Doctors were disappointed, but some blamed them for the breakdown in the talks. They demanded noneconomic damages caps, a measure that was unpalatable to the Democrat-controlled House. The doctors’ unwillingness to compromise torpedoed the chances of striking a deal. “We came down here looking for meaningful tort reform, and it’s been an uphill battle all the way,” said David Cook, executive director of the Medical Association of Georgia, a doctors’ organization. He said nobody’s come up with anything better than caps, adding that many House proposals do little to protect doctors, though they may protect the “deeper pockets” of hospitals and businesses. “We’d rather have no bill than a bad bill or a weak bill,” he said. ‘SENATE WANTS ALL OR NOTHING’ William T. Clark, lobbyist for the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, accused the Republican-controlled Senate of wanting to create a campaign issue. “The Senate wants all or nothing, and they won’t get all so they’ll get nothing,” he said, referring to caps. “Price has wanted caps for a political issue,” Clark added. He said he was very disappointed that no reforms were passed. “Reasonable reforms,” he said, “would’ve deflated the rhetoric that tort reformists have used to their advantage.” Reforms would have “exposed the fallacy of their arguments,” he said. Price said it was “utter nonsense” that he allowed the talks to fall apart in order to create a campaign issue in his run for Congress. “It stoops to a level that [the trial lawyers] are accustomed to stooping to,” he said. House envoys would have mandated mediation in malpractice claims, increased the state insurance commissioner’s responsibilities to regulate insurance premiums, and allowed a jury to apportion damages without completely ending joint and several liability. In addition to caps, senators proposed an end to joint and several liability in both professional and medical malpractice claims, emergency room immunity from damages claims, and a revision of the state’s expert witness rules. TORT REFORM FLARE-UPS The flare-ups were typical of the high-stakes game that dominated the internal politics of the Legislature this year. Though there were more publicized skirmishes over the budget, Medicaid, education and gay marriage, tort reform was a high-pressure background issue. The issue became so heated it led to the rare mid-session ouster of the House Judiciary chairman. When House Speaker Terry L. Coleman removed Savannah lawyer and Democratic Rep. Thomas C. Bordeaux Jr. from the post he’d held since 2002, he told him he’d become a “lightning rod” on the issue. New House Judiciary Chairwoman Oliver almost immediately placed a Senate tort reform bill on the committee’s agenda, only to have the Senate pass a new tort reform bill and moot the exercise. Bordeaux had been accused of not allowing the Senate’s tort reform proposals to receive a fair hearing in his committee. Oliver, with a district that includes the Emory University hospital complex, was considered to be a lawmaker with more incentive to compromise on the issue. But even she couldn’t find common ground on tort reform this week. FIGHT OVER CAPS Starting last Monday, a conference committee composed of Oliver; Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell; House Majority Leader James M. “Jimmy” Skipper Jr., D-Americus; Price, a doctor; Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, an accountant; and Sen. Preston W. Smith, R-Rome, an insurance defense lawyer, met to work out a compromise on HB 1028, the “vehicle” bill the Senate amended to include tort reform. The bill originally was intended to create a state-run insurance pool for doctors and hospitals. Called the Georgia Hospital and Medical Liability Authority, the pool would sell bonds to fund itself in an effort to compete with the handful of insurance providers selling coverage in Georgia. As negotiators met, their positions hardened. House leaders were enraged that Price had reintroduced caps into the talks, after the Senate had voted them down. When Coleman heard that the Senate had included caps in its Monday offer, he called the move “insolent” and added, “That’s an indication they might not want tort reform. The Senate defeated [caps] on the floor.” The Senate had failed for two years to approve noneconomic damages caps, despite heavy lobbying from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Hospital Authority and the Medical Association of Georgia. For a brief time this session, it looked like caps had a chance. On March 31, the Senate passed a measure calling for caps, 28-27. Then, in a parliamentary procedure, the Senate voted to reconsider the measure. Upon reconsideration, the caps failed 24-31. Still, Price, who has championed the cause in the Senate, included caps in his offer to the House Democrats and insisted upon that position into Wednesday afternoon, as the clock ticked down to sine die. He defended his move, saying it wasn’t rare for measures that failed in the Senate to be resuscitated in conference committee. He complained that none of the House measures had been approved by that chamber yet, either. Oliver retorted she wasn’t bringing to the table measures her chamber had defeated. Sen. David I. Adelman, D-Atlanta, said he was surprised that Price had offered noneconomic caps in the conference committee. “I was surprised to find that some of the conferees tried to advance positions that were soundly defeated” in the Senate, said Adelman, who opposed caps in a Senate vote. At 11:15 p.m. Wednesday, just 45 minutes before the session would end, the Senate voted 29 to 21 to dissolve the conference committee because the Senate conferees weren’t negotiating in good faith. But at that late hour, a new negotiation team wasn’t appointed, and the bill died for the session.

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