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Senate Judiciary committee passes some relief, but...

Medical community’s priority: tort reform legislation

JACKSON — A sliver of hope remains for tort reform legislation to pass during the 2002 legislative session, the top priority for Mississippi’s medical community.

Even though more than 40 tort reform bills were filed in the House and Senate, the Senate Judiciary committee passed two weak tort reform bills out of committee on Feb. 5, the deadline for originating committee action. Sen. Bennie Turner (D-West Point), chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, had promised that if the bill came before the full committee, it had a chance of passage. All House tort reform legislation died in committee. The deadline for floor action is Feb. 14.

“I’m dumbfounded,” said Dr. Hugh Gamble, president of the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA). “I’m hard-pressed to understand what it is the Legislature feels is so much more important than the health and welfare of the citizens of the state, because they are putting it in jeopardy.”

Senate Bill 2342, a comprehensive tort reform bill that had 23 co-authors — nearly half the Senate — was “gutted,” said Mark Dvorak, executive director of Mississippians for Economic Progress (MFEP), a coalition of more than 40 PACs and individuals, including several medical professionals, with tort reform as its singular agenda.

“Certainly, what was passed out of the Senate Judiciary committee is not what we wanted, but it’s a starting point,” he said. “It keeps the issue alive.”

Sen. Dean Kirby (R-Pearl), who introduced SB2342 and several other tort reform measures, said the bill came out of committee as “basically a change of venue bill.”

“We had to break down the issues to make sure some bills were still alive,” Kirby said. “There were a lot of people against caps, yet several were for it. It was a real controversial bill.”

SB2342 would allow lawyers in major medical malpractice cases to draw jury pools from surrounding counties, in addition to the county where an incident occurred.

The second tort reform bill, Senate Bill 2654, would lengthen the statute of limitations on nursing home lawsuits to seven years, the same as hospitals.

On “White Coat Day” last month, organized by the Mississippi State Medical Association, more than 300 physicians rallied at the Capitol to lobby legislators to vote for tort reform. When rumors swirled on Feb. 4 that Senate Judiciary committee members were considering shelving all tort reform legislation, or drastically changing its intent, “white coats” showed up en masse at the Capitol.

“It was sad, really sad,” said Lex Taylor, MFEP Chairman. “It’s as if legislators didn’t hear anything that the doctors and all of the associations said.”

Rep. Ed Blackmon (D-Canton), chairman of the Judiciary B Committee, had criticized special interest groups saying they were “using the time-honored and tried method of influencing public policy through the dissemination of misinformation and by the use of a sympathetic lobby — the doctors.”

Rep. Percy Watson (D-Hattiesburg), chairman of the Judiciary A committee, said the bills didn’t pass out of the House subcommittee because “many of the proposals (went) beyond what many of the members of the committee and subcommittee would like to see.” He said his committee would consider the Senate bills.

Last month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report that ranked Mississippi last on judicial equity — 50th in overall treatment of tort and contract litigation, punitive damages, timeliness of summary judgment and dismissal discovery, scientific evidence, judge’s impartiality and competence and juries’ predictability and fairness.

“Last year, we had two cases where the jury awards were in excess of the individual physician’s policy limit of liability,” said Charles M. “Chuck” Dunn III, COO and vice president of claims, of Medical Assurance Company of Mississippi (MACM). “One of the last trials in 2001 was a $23-million verdict against Central Mississippi Medical Center.”

Recently, MACM implemented an overall 10% medical malpractice insurance rate increase while obstetricians and surgeons saw even higher rate increases, Dunn said.

“Tort reform won’t affect the cases going on now,” he said. “If we had a trial right this moment, we could end up with another eight- or nine-figure verdict. There’s nothing to change that. If we have that kind of volatility, the damage is done.”

More than 10,000 plaintiffs are in line in the Claiborne County Circuit Court.

“Nobody can guarantee anything in this environment because there’s been so much damage and so much erosion to the basic defenses following judicial precedent….and I don’t know that any amount of tort reform is going to help those numbers,” Dunn said.

Last year, many insurers, like the St. Paul Companies, pulled out of the state. However, the St. Paul Companies, which insure physicians in 45 states, began phasing out coverage across the U.S. as contracts with physicians expired.

Lance Stevens, past president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, said medical professionals “are blindly accepting the propaganda the insurance companies are feeding them.”

If a tort reform bill finds it way to the governor’s desk, one question lingers: Will Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a trial lawyer who has sidestepped the tort reform issue by saying only that “Mississippi needs a stable business environment,” give his approval?

“I would certainly hope so,” said Gamble.

Dvorak said MFEP lobbying efforts would continue.

“Mississippi has a serious problem with its civil justice system and we’ve got to fix it,” he said.

Kirby said, “We’ve accomplished a lot. We’ve come a long, long way. I don’t know what’s going to happen now — we could add amendments on the floor or come away with nothing — but it’s going to be interesting.”

Gamble referred to the Mississippi Legislature as “a funny animal.”

“It has all these deadlines and cutoffs, but the one thing you learn in watching the Legislature, until you reach ‘sine die,’ nothing is finished,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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