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The Georgia state Senate passed sweeping changes to the state’s civil code Tuesday over complaints from the opposition that discussion was cut off and there was no opportunity to amend the legislation. The bill, which passed by a 39-15 vote, includes a bitterly fought provision that limits noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases to $250,000 per defendant, up to an aggregate $750,000 per incident. Senate Bill 3 also would establish pretrial hearings on evidentiary matters, create stricter guidelines for expert witnesses, restrict plaintiffs from pursuing suits in their original venue after co-defendants have dropped out, and change the mechanism for apportioning liability to a percentage basis by abolishing joint and several liability. Since the Nov. 2 elections, opponents have conceded that a version of tort reform would pass, but some had long drawn a line in the sand when it came to caps. Sen. Gloria S. Butler, D-Clarkston summed up the core of the argument against caps. “How can you place a value on the life of a loved one?” she asked. The majority Republican chamber made it difficult Tuesday to discuss that question, as lawmakers voted in a rare move to engross the bill — making it immune to any changes — despite fervent objections from several Democratic senators. Democratic leaders had hoped to introduce six amendments meant to soften or strip caps, eliminate the pretrial expert witness hearings and modify joint and several liability, but the engrossment prevented them from being heard. “If you can’t stand the debate, you don’t belong in the chair,” said an impassioned Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta. “If you think your leadership elected you, you need to take another look.” Sen. Michael S. Meyer von Bremen, an Albany Democrat, blasted Republicans for “drinking the Kool-Aid” that the GOP leadership had force-fed them. But Sen. Preston W. Smith, the author of the bill, said it wouldn’t be productive to have a floor debate on amendments. “Experience has taught us there are certain bills that are not well-perfected on the floor,” said Smith, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. GOP leaders worked behind the scenes Monday to secure the needed votes for engrossment. While leaders appeared confident of passing tort reform, they seemed eager to avoid a lengthy debate — and one that would have put lawmakers on the spot on the issue of caps. The negotiating seemed to persuade several Republicans who may have been on the fence. Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, fought off tears as he told lawmakers about losing two sons to a negligent physician. Still, he said the bill is “desperately needed” to improve the state’s business climate. Four Republicans, including freshman Sen. Daniel J. Weber, an Atlanta attorney, joined the Senate’s Democratic caucus in the vote against the engrossment. GOP Sens. Jack Hill, Brian P. Kemp and David J. Shafer also opposed engrossment. “It’s hard to go against the party line,” said Weber, who voted to pass SB 3. “But a floor debate was the right thing to do. I saw no reason to do otherwise.” Tuesday’s vote marks the first step for legislation that doctors, hospitals and business lobbies have long sought to limit what they consider as frivolous suits and overly generous verdicts. Trial lawyers and victims’ advocates see the measure as a concession to special interests and contend that the few abuses of the current system are outweighed by the plight of victims who can’t get redress in the courts. The health care lobbies contend the legislation would help drive down insurance premiums. For the past few weeks, battalions of white-coated physicians have roamed the statehouse halls, and lawmakers have heard stories of doctors driven out of business because of rising insurance costs. Trial lawyers and consumer advocates, who also have mounted a sizable daily presence under the Gold Dome, argue that the legislation would restrict access to the courts. And they say the bill isn’t likely to lower insurance premiums without companion legislation that reforms the insurance industry. The state’s major medical malpractice insurer, MAG Mutual, attempted to undercut that argument by sending out a pledge to all 56 senators vowing to cut medical malpractice premiums by at least 10 percent on the day that a $250,000 cap is enacted. William T. Clark, the political affairs director for the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, called the pledge a “political gimmick.” “It’s the equivalent of Macy’s-Rich’s raising their price by 225 percent over four years and then having a 10 percent sale,” said Clark, who had worked behind the scenes Monday to rally opposition. ‘TODAY, THE ORDINARY PEOPLE LOST’ Since the November elections, tort reform supporters had anticipated that the GOP-dominated Legislature would approve changes to the civil justice system, while trial lawyers and victims’ advocate groups hoped to gain some concessions. “Members of my party know that tort reform is going to pass. Come on. I’m a big boy, and I’m going to stick my chin out and take it,” said Sen. M. Kasim Reed, an Atlanta Democrat. “But my mother told me never to take the path of surrender, the path of submission. Today, the ordinary people lost.” Reed and other Democrats pointed out this was the second time in a week that their attempts to amend this bill were rebuffed. Last week Democrats were barred from adding amendments at a testy Senate Judiciary meeting, when members voted 6-2 to send the bill forward. During the meeting, Smith announced several substantive revisions to the bill, most notable among them the removal of a section that would have given hospital emergency rooms immunity from medical-malpractice cases stemming from the first 24 hours of care. Instead, the burden of proof would be heightened on emergency cases, and jurors must be given specific instruction on the emergency nature of the visit. Other changes made by the committee included the following: � The bill would require the Board of Medical Examiners to investigate a doctor if he was disciplined three times over a 10-year period, and it would require insurers to report to the board any payments made in malpractice settlements. � The prevailing party in a civil action would be permitted to request a jury to determine whether the other party made a frivolous claim or defense and possibly award damages. � The bill states that noneconomic damages shall not include the value of services, such as work in the home. � In anticipation of constitutional challenges, a severability clause would allow the rest of the bill’s provisions to remain legal if the state Supreme Court strikes down part of the law. The committee’s Democratic members were incensed that the Republican chairman used what they called a technicality — a requirement that amendments be submitted at least 24 hours before a meeting — to bar his committee from hearing their amendments. Meyer von Bremen stalked out of the committee room after Smith refused to hear his amendment. Moments later, Minority Leader Robert Brown also left the hearing. Smith said his goal was to move the tort reform bill forward so the House could get its turn at it. “The House has never had hearings,” he said. “The idea was to get it to the House, to allow them to begin the process.” SEVEN HOUSE BILLS Even as the Senate passed the bill, House leaders were gearing up for their own tort reform battle. House Majority Whip Barry A. Fleming introduced seven bills Monday that call for measures similar to the comprehensive Senate package. One bill repeats the call to cap noneconomic damages in medical-malpractice cases at $250,000 or up to $750,000 if multiple defendants are found liable. Another bill would instruct jurors to consider the nature of a patient’s visit to the emergency room. A third bill sets up an offer-of-judgment system, which states that if one party offers to settle and the other refuses, the latter would have to pay both parties’ legal fees if a judgment is “significantly less favorable” to the rejecting party. Other bills dictate that hospitals shall not be held liable for emergency providers unless an employment relationship can be proved, and call for changes in venue guidelines and the abolishment of joint and several liability, similar to the Senate bill. By introducing each bill separately, Fleming said he hopes not only that the legislation will generate more discussion, but also that the piecemeal fashion might preserve tort reform’s constitutionality if the courts strike down one section. Fleming will play a pivotal role in the passage of tort reform beyond being its chief sponsor in the House. A special committee, which he will chair, will hear the tort reform bills. The special committee includes several committee heads across the House as well as Majority Leader Jerry Keen, House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Sharon Cooper and House Majority Caucus Secretary Sue Burmeister. The committee, which could begin hearings as early as this week, includes nine Republicans, one independent and four Democrats. It’s a move designed to yield quick passage, said Rep. Thomas C. Bordeaux Jr., a Savannah Democrat and tort reform opponent. “The way they have the bill set up is that the bill can come out of committee, go through the House Rules Committee and make it to the floor without amending it,” said Bordeaux, the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. A plurality, but not majority, of the committee’s members are attorneys — a mix that Fleming says will aid what he hopes will be vigorous debate. “We are really behind the curve,” Fleming said. “The template has been set, and we’re playing catch-up.”

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