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Georgia Senate leaders introduced a comprehensive tort reform bill Monday that would eliminate joint and several liability and cap noneconomic damages. The bill, pre-filed by Sen. Eric Johnson and other senators, the president pro tempore of the Senate, caps noneconomic damages at $250,000 from health care providers, $250,000 from a single medical facility or $500,000 from all medical facilities. The legislation also would limit damages on emergency medical departments and allow physicians to make voluntary expressions of sympathy to victims that can’t be used as evidence or an admission of liability. A spokeswoman for the Medical Association of Georgia, the main lobby for tort reform, called the bill “the first step.” “Everything in there is not absolutely what the Medical Association wanted, but we are pleased with the overall package,” said spokeswoman Kathy Browning. MAG spent more than $600,000 supporting pro-tort reform candidates in this year’s election and won 86 percent of the Senate contests and 95 percent of the House seats it endorsed. “I think the public realizes something has to be done about this crisis. We really do have a mandate now,” said Browning. The organization’s model tort reform package, Browning said, would cap noneconomic damages at $250,000; end joint and several liability; and require expert witnesses to be licensed in their profession, actively practicing or teaching in their field and certified in the same specialty as the defendant physician. MAG also would like to limit attorney fees in malpractice cases based on a sliding scale that decreases the proportion a lawyer receives as the damage amount increases. The issue of noneconomic damages likely will spark the most debate. Rep. J. Glenn Richardson, who will become the House’s first Republican speaker in January following the party’s historic takeover of the chamber, cautioned that even a Legislature considered friendly to reform might differ with MAG over the specifics. Richardson could not be reached Monday when the tort reform legislation was introduced but spoke to the Daily Report last week. “It will happen. … I predict a bill will come out that makes significant inroads into correcting the swing of the pendulum,” Richardson said. “I prefer to look at it as balancing the scale of justice. It’s right now skewed against big business and health care providers, and there are corrections that can be made that won’t affect most of the potential majority.” However, Richardson said he disagrees with MAG’s call for a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages. He favors a $1 million cap on noneconomic damages that could be divided equally among multiple defendants. “I think that’s a good, fair number,” Richardson said. HIGH LEGISLATIVE TURNOVER Rep. Wendell K. Willard, R-Atlanta, considered a candidate to chair the House Judiciary Committee, said high turnover in his chamber might slow the passage of complex legislation such as tort reform. Almost half the House and two-thirds of the Senate have turned over since 2002. In the House Judiciary Committee, nine of the 21 members have been wiped out since the session’s end by election defeats, redistricting and retirement. “We’re all going to go through a learning phase,” said Willard. Willard favors tackling the issue with smaller bills that address specific areas, such as a pre-review of malpractice claims. “I’d rather look at each item one at a time,” he said last week. “Packages can come in as a take-it-or-leave-it, and we don’t have to do that anymore.” However, Johnson prefers a comprehensive package. “I’m afraid if you piecemeal it, you could wear people out after one or two issues,” said the Savannah, Ga., Republican. Regardless of how it’s presented, some opponents of tort reform are resigned to its passage. “I presume all bets are off and that the rights of the citizens will be flushed down the toilet,” said Rep. Thomas C. Bordeaux Jr., a Democrat from Savannah who was ousted as the House Judiciary chairman last session after stalling on tort reform bills. “I think they’ll pass anything and everything to insulate the doctors from being responsible for their mistakes.” Bordeaux disputed MAG’s view that the election results signaled a mandate for tort reform. Though most MAG-endorsed candidates won, he said, they were mostly Republicans who benefited from voter sentiment that had nothing to do with the tort system. “The public doesn’t care about tort reform,” Bordeaux said. “They don’t know what it means, and they don’t care what it means. I don’t think this last election is about tort reform. There were about 18 other issues in line ahead of that.” William T. Clark, political affairs director for the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, said his group was willing to compromise with tort reform supporters over the past two years on every issue except noneconomic damages limitations. “To be honest, we could have struck a deal with the hospitals, the Republican leadership, if not for MAG being so obstinate in taking an all-or-nothing approach,” he said. On the issue of caps, though, GTLA draws the line. “Caps are antithetical to what the civil justice system is all about,” Clark said. He said he’s confident that enough GTLA allies remain in the Legislature to fend off a hostile tort reform package. “What really matters is when the votes are cast,” he said. “We believe Republicans are just as supportive of the civil justice program as Democrats.” Both GTLA and MAG are already busy reaching out to new House and Senate members to try to influence them for a floor vote on legislation that, unlike last session, they expect to escape the House Judiciary Committee. After months of negotiating during the 2004 session, the divided Legislature failed to pass a tort reform package that was in play until the session’s last day. The GOP-dominated Senate had 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. The Democrat-controlled House sought to mandate mediation in malpractice claims, increase the state insurance commissioner’s oversight to regulate premiums, and allow a jury to declare damages without completely ending joint and several liability. The bill was torpedoed in the session’s final hours when both sides failed to reach a compromise. After the session’s end, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, the former Democratic chair of the committee, held a series of hearings with business, legal and hospital interests hoping to get a jumpstart on the legislative process. But, she said, “that work has essentially concluded, from my perspective, on [Nov. 2].”

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