Legal reform gets underway in the House

Posted March 31, 2011

House lawmakers are beginning the process of rewriting the state’s liability laws. But consumer and patient advocates say the changes they’re considering would make North Carolina “the most unsafe state in the nation.”

House Bill 542, “Tort Reform for Citizens and Businesses,” casts a wide net, covering medical malpractice, attorney fees, product liability, and trespassing laws.

For medical malpractice, the bill incorporates most of a provision already approved by the Senate. It would cap non-economic damages at $250,000, give emergency room doctors near-immunity from malpractice suits, and require more credentials for “expert witnesses.”

“This bill harms patients,” Dr. John Faulkner told the House Select Tort Reform committee today. Faulkner is a primary-care physician whose wife, Joan, was badly burned in a preventable operating room fire ten years ago.

“It’s obvious who supports this bill,” he said. “The current system is tilted toward medical providers and insurers. House Bill 542 would tilt that balance even further.”

But Sammy Thompson, a malpractice defense attorney, said the changes are needed to make the state’s civil justice system “more reasonable.” He told lawmakers that “defensive medicine” – ordering tests and scans that aren’t really necessary - is a widespread and expensive practice.

Another part of the bill would make it very difficult for North Carolinians to sue the manufacturers of a product that has harmed them. Under the measure, if the product is subject to any type of state or federal regulation or approval, its maker could not be held liable for it. The only exceptions would be for products that were sold after they had been recalled, or if a plaintiff can prove the manufacturer defrauded or bribed regulators.

Janet Ward Black, a former Miss North Carolina who’s now one of the state’s leading liability lawyers, told the committee the proposal is far more extreme than any other state’s law, and "would make North Carolina the most unsafe state in the nation for consumers.”

Black used the example of a lawsuit over tainted baby food, which is regulated by the FDA. Under H542, she said, North Carolina “would be the only state in the US that would not allow that case to go forward.”

Manufacturers of drugs, cars, toys, food, cell phones, medical devices and hundreds of other products would be virtually immune from liability suits, Black testified. She said the bill would “grant amnesty for every manufacturer in the world." 

But pharmaceutical liability attorney Fred Roth disagreed. Roth said the measure“won’t preclude individuals from bringing valid claims.” He argued that the regulatory and judicial systems shouldn’t be at odds with each other.

The measure would also limit the awarding of attorney’s fees in small claims cases, and would discourage plaintiffs from seeking large punitive awards by giving 75% of any award above $100,000 to the state’s education fund.

The committee heard from about a dozen witnesses today, six for the bill and six in opposition, but didn’t debate the bill among themselves. Chairman Johnathan Rhyne, R-Lincoln, says they’ll meet again on the proposal next week.


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  • explorerford Apr 4, 2011

    Sec. 18. Court shall be open.

    All courts shall be open; every person for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person, or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law; and right and justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay
    Sec. 25. Right of jury trial in civil cases.

    In all controversies at law respecting property, the ancient mode of trial by jury is one of the best securities of the rights of the people, and shall remain sacred and inviolable.


    I would love someone to try and debate that? Any takers?

  • jpt Apr 4, 2011

    Sure looks like the current majority has taken too much pocket money from the insurance companies and big buisnesses in washington, D.C. and the payoff is the rights and welfare of our citizens! I'm all for fiscal responsibility, but not for becoming the laughing stock of the nation. I always thought my republican party was for the working class, not just another mouthpiece for big buisness who is taking away my family's safety.

  • engdahljohnson Apr 3, 2011

    What can we learn about medical professional liability from prior economic downturns?

  • rduguyinral Apr 1, 2011

    I wonder if JosephLawrence who posted below in favor of "capping malpractice awards" is Joseph Lawrence Brady, MD, who had his medical license suspended in NC and SC:

    Seems he had a little substance abuse issue:

    If I were that doctor, I'd want immunity from law suits too.

  • tmh1375 Apr 1, 2011

    The people want honest reform yes, but not at the expense of all their rights. You sound like a "North Carolinians for Affordable Health Care, Inc." commerical.

  • josephlawrence43 Apr 1, 2011

    people want honest reform of the health care system--capping malpractice awards is a first step...

  • explorerford Apr 1, 2011

    I am sorry was there a legal crisis in this State? Sounds like payback for all the big insurance company money the republicans got, now they have to go after the trial lawyers. Problem is, this is at the expense of us all. I don't want my rights taken away just so some republicans can try to even some old score