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Bill capping malpractice awards defeated

A Senate committee rejects legislation that would limit the jury awards at $250,000.

By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 21, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- A Senate panel dealt a crippling blow to caps on medical malpractice awards Thursday, putting one of Gov. Jeb Bush's top priorities in serious jeopardy.

The Senate Health, Aging and Long-Term Care Committee voted 10-1 against a bill to cap noneconomic damages in such suits at $250,000.

Senators sided with trial lawyers and advocates for patients, who argued that caps on pain and suffering would punish the elderly and those who don't work and don't qualify for economic damages.

"The evidence simply was overwhelming that caps don't solve the problem," said Lake Lytal, co-chairman of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers' medical malpractice task force. He added: "This was a major victory for us today."

Florida doctors and hospitals complain that rising liability insurance premiums are driving them out of business and forcing patients to wait for certain health care services like mammograms.

The committee did approve several other bills that deal with the insurance and patient safety aspects of medical malpractice. It is possible, though unlikely, that medical lobbyists will get caps back into another medical malpractice bill in a different committee before the package goes to the full Senate.

"The bill was defeated, so there are no bills in the Senate that include caps," said committee Chairman Burt Saunders, R-Naples. "That doesn't necessarily mean the issue is foreclosed."

Saunders, the caps bill sponsor, was the only senator to vote for the bill.

Florida Medical Association lobbyist Sandy Mortham shook her head over the committee's vote.

"I think they have not yet grasped the gravity of the situation," Mortham said. "I really think they need to wake up ... because we have a real crisis brewing."

Meanwhile, the House today is scheduled to vote on its medical malpractice bill, which includes caps. Like the Senate version that was killed, the House bill allows unlimited damages for medical costs and lost wages.

House Health Care Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, is predicting a special session if the House and Senate can't agree on imposing caps.

Bush said Thursday he will keep lawmakers in Tallahassee until they pass a medical malpractice bill, but didn't specify whether that would have to include caps: "They're not going to leave without passing medical malpractice."

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