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Voters call it a draw in doctor-lawyer battle

Lawyers will get less for malpractice cases, but mistake-prone doctors will lose their licenses.

LISA GREENE
Published November 3, 2004

Voters handed victories to both sides Tuesday in the war between Florida doctors and lawyers, adopting a hotly contested constitutional amendment backed by Florida doctors but also endorsing two amendments pushed by lawyers and bitterly opposed by doctors.

The new amendments mean lawyers will get less money for taking on malpractice cases. But they will also have easier access to medical records. And doctors who make too many mistakes will lose their licenses.

The $27-million fight over the three amendments became the year's most expensive state campaign. Most of the money, nearly $20-million, was raised by Floridians for Patient Protection, a safety group backed by trial lawyers.

The battle over Amendment 3, whether to limit lawyers' fees, got the most attention - and drew the most money. There were TV ads bashing "greedy lawyers" and banner planes attacking "bad doctors."

"It's good for patients," said Dr. Dennis Agliano, the Tampa surgeon who is president of the Florida Medical Association. "We want them to get the bulk of the awards."

But lawyers are planning a legal challenge.

"It's such a very dangerous precedent," said Alexander Clem, president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. "Government should not engage in price-fixing. It's un-American."

Lawyers representing malpractice victims generally don't get any money up front. Instead, they take a hefty percentage, usually 30 to 40 percent, of any settlement they collect, plus legal costs. Amendment 3 would limit that to 30 percent of the first $250,000 and 10 percent of anything over that.

The limits are simply meant to help malpractice victims collect what they deserve, doctors say. But lawyers say the amendment will have less obvious effects. Malpractice cases are so complicated and expensive to prepare, they say, that many lawyers will decide there's too much financial risk to take many cases. In the end, many genuine malpractice victims won't be able to find a lawyer.

Amendment 7 gives patients broader access to records about doctors' and hospitals' medical errors. Advocates say such information would pressure hospitals to be safer and help patients choose the best doctors and hospitals. Hospitals and doctors say fear of publicity would hurt safety because doctors would be afraid to report others' mistakes.

Amendment 8 will revoke the licenses of doctors who have three or more legal judgments or official discipline actions against them. Advocates say such bad doctors shouldn't be practicing medicine. Opponents say the measure will force certain doctors who are frequently sued, such as those who deliver babies or do brain surgeries, to settle regardless of whether they did anything wrong.

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