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Nursing home damages would be further limited

Two years after the industry won punitive lawsuit limits, a panel supports capping arbitration awards.

©Associated Press
February 20, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- A legislative panel voted Wednesday to recommend an arbitration system that would include awards limits for those who use it in lawsuits against nursing homes.

The nursing home industry won limits on punitive damages in lawsuits two years ago as part of a broad package of reforms meant to help blunt the impact of rising insurance rates the homes said were driving them out of business.

But they are are back before lawmakers this year, saying that despite improvements in care -- mainly from increases in staffing required by the same 2001 bill -- and despite the punitive damages cap, the situation hasn't improved.

"The lawsuits are still out of control," said Cory Tilley, a spokesman for the Florida Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, which represents facility owners.

They argue that lawsuit awards against homes continue to drive up their costs and chase nursing home insurers out of Florida.

The joint House-Senate committee report included new limits on lawsuit damages, angering lawyers who represent victims of nursing home neglect and abuse.

"They are acting to further restrict the rights of our citizens," said Frank Petosa, the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers' nursing home chairman.

"There's no significant tradeoff of any beefed-up quality of care," Petosa said.

Members of the Joint Select Committee on Nursing Homes noted that their recommendations don't amount to a bill, and the House and Senate don't have to follow the details in the proposal.

Still, both sides in the debate say the recommendations likely will find their way into legislation.

Under the panel's recommendations, if both sides in a nursing home lawsuit agree to binding arbitration and the defendant admits wrongdoing, the most the plaintiff could win would be $250,000.

If the nursing home offers to go to arbitration but the plaintiff refuses, pain and suffering and other noneconomic damages would be limited to $350,000.

Similar caps exist when medical malpractice cases are filed -- although doctors are fighting for a $250,000 cap in all malpractice cases, not just those where arbitration is offered.

Gov. Jeb Bush also supports capping awards in nursing home suits when arbitration is offered and sent a letter urging the committee to propose the limits.

Some lawmakers worry the Legislature is returning too quickly to the issue. "One of the assurances I seem to recall is that we were going to give the law an opportunity to work," said Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Tamarac. "It's only been working 16 months or so."

Campbell suggested lawmakers wait a year to see more results from the 2001 changes.

But others said the people most affected, nursing home residents, can't wait another year.

"I'm concerned that nursing homes are going to continue to close," said Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola.

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