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King says Senate may be flexible on limiting malpractice damages

By Associated Press
Published May 23, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Easing a Senate stance against limiting medical malpractice lawsuit damages, Senate President Jim King said Thursday that some type of damages cap is likely to be part of a legislative solution to the rising cost of insurance for doctors.

King, R-Jacksonville, also said in a television interview that lawmakers aren't likely to tackle the malpractice problem in the current special legislative session that ends Tuesday.

Lawmakers are tentatively talking about coming back to Tallahassee in June to deal with the issue, which doctors say threatens a health care crisis. A number of physicians say their premiums for malpractice insurance have gotten so high they may have to quit practicing or performing some procedures. Several, including members of a surgical practice in King's hometown, have recently suspended practice in protest of the Legislature's failure to enact malpractice reform.

Huge payouts in lawsuits are blamed by insurance companies for pushing up the rates. Much of the talk in dealing with the problem has revolved around limiting lawsuit damages, particularly noneconomic, or pain-and-suffering awards.

During the regular session the House pushed for a noneconomic damages cap of $250,000, which the Senate would not accept.

King said much of the discussion has shifted from whether to limit damages to how to implement a cap.

"I don't think necessarily the cap is as much of an issue in the discussion that's going on now as what the cap would be, whether it would be $250,000 or $500,000 or a soft cap or whatever," King said during a taping for the public television program Florida Face to Face.

A soft cap is a limit with a sliding scale for damages - less egregious cases of malpractice would have lower limits and more serious cases would allow for larger jury awards.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, said later he was "glad to see the Senate begin to focus on this."

Asked if the House was set on the $250,000 limit on noneconomic damages, Byrd said the House would likely defer to Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been a vocal proponent of such a ceiling at that level.

"I think the negotiating really has to take place between the governor and the Senate," Byrd said. But he said some House members were likely thinking about alternatives to the straight $250,000 cap.

Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said Wednesday that senators were also considering a proposal to create a physician-funded pool to provide compensation for victims who go before a panel of doctors to hear their case rather than into court. One proposal would limit damages in such cases to $1-million per victim.

[Last modified May 23, 2003, 01:45:58]

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