House considers new liability lawsuit bill

Posted March 31, 2011

— A Republican push to change how liability lawsuits against companies and doctors are handled was panned by consumer advocates and praised by business backers Thursday during a state House committee meeting.

The panel heard public reaction to the wide-ranging legislation introduced Wednesday to revamp "tort" lawsuits, which determine responsibility for harm and decide whether compensation is deserved. Lawmakers are expected to begin debating the bill next week.

Supporters said the moves will boost businesses by shielding them from courtroom surprises doled out by juries swayed by emotion. Opponents said North Carolina is pushing further than virtually every other state to tilt the balance of justice toward business interests.

Similar restrictions on tort lawsuits were passed into law in Wisconsin earlier this year.

"Every provision of the House tort reform bill favors corporate traders of harm to others at the expense of innocent North Carolinians who in no way caused the injury to themselves," said Dick Taylor, chief executive of North Carolina Advocates for Justice, which represents trial lawyers and criminal defense attorneys.

The proposed changes under House Bill 542 include the following:

  • Protect the makers of any drug, chemical or consumer product from lawsuits if the item was approved by or met regulatory requirements of a state or federal government agency.
  • Allow only a quarter of large damage awards intended to punish bad behavior to go to the victim, with the other 75 percent of a punitive award of more than $100,000 going to a state fund.
  • Cap at $250,000 awards for medical malpractice that caused pain, suffering, disfigurement or other non-economic damages, with an inflation adjustment every three years.
  • Add protections against medical malpractice lawsuits for adult care homes.

The legislation is part of a larger effort by GOP lawmakers working with the state's chamber of commerce, which has made liability law changes a top priority this year. The bill's sponsor and the committee's co-chairman, Rep. Johnathan Rhyne, R-Lincoln, has said the GOP is seeking to make the state's courts more business-friendly.

Attorney Janet Ward-Black held up Sunday newspaper ads to demonstrate the number of companies and products approved by regulators that would be shielded from lawsuits if the measure passes.

"Almost every single product, whether its manufactured in North Carolina, another state or another country, is affected by this bill," Ward-Black said.

House considers new liability lawsuit bill House considers new liability lawsuit bill

Henderson physician John Faulkner said he's been both a defendant and a plaintiff in the courtroom. Nearly a decade ago, he sued a hospital and the doctors performing surgery on his wife after oxygen ignited in the operating room, severely burning her face and upper body.

The case was settled after a three-year legal fight, but he said a $250,000 cap on malpractice awards wouldn't have even paid the family's legal fees.

"What helped our family through this time was the belief" in a fair justice system, Faulkner said. "This bill harms patients. It's not in patients' best interest. You just have to look to see who this bill really favors."

Product liability defense lawyers said companies would still be accountable if they made a faulty product or warnings were inadequate. The measure would protect companies from the whims of jurors lacking scientific expertise in issuing decisions that overrule years of research and review by regulatory experts, they said.

"If the manufacturers withheld information from the regulating agency, if they misrepresented information, they don't get the benefit of that protection," said attorney Fred Rom, who represents pharmaceutical firms.

The number of malpractice cases filed in state courts has averaged nearly 480 in the past five years, with an average of 64 cases getting to trial before a jury or judge, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. The state courts have no data on product liability cases filed.

The changes insulating doctors would make "the civil justice system more stable, more predictable and more reasonable," said Sammy Thompson, an attorney who represents insurance companies in medical malpractice lawsuits.

But Laurie Sanders, whose 6-year-old son, Christopher, died in a hospital emergency room five years ago, said she is concerned that tort reform means that people in a similar position in the future won't be able to pursue a malpractice case.

"Under this ER provision, who would have picked up the bill for his lifetime care (had he survived)?" Sanders asked. "It would be Christopher's mom."


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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.


    What do you say about that JoCo Gun Owner? Any arguments?

  • explorerford Apr 4, 2011

    JoCo Gun owner, the premiums would remain the same, they payouts would decrease, therefore more profits to the insurance company. Tell me exactly why you want Insurance Company CEOs from other states to get richer at the expense of your rights in North Carolina.

    Republicans, and I am one of them, believe Government does not have the right to interfere in our lives. Republicans believe in the consitutition. Why do these "republicans" think its ok for Government to reach into the jury box and say what a case is worth? Explain that.

    The NC Constitution says that the RIGHT TO TRIAL BY JURY shall be involitate. Thats means, you can't mess with it, like it or not.

    The republicans in Raleigh today have hijacked my party. They are just paying payback.

    You have made not a single valid argument other than bash lawyers, which is unoriginal, people have been doing that since Anceint Greece, 2 thousand years ago.

    No more big government!

  • tmh1375 Apr 1, 2011

    It's easy to fall for the propaganda when you don't do further research into issues and use the media as your sole source of truth. Same goes for labels. If something is labeled "Republican" or "Democrat" people assume that if "their" party is proposing it then it's good enough for them to jump on the band wagon. Then throw in the deceptive ads from groups like, "North Carolinians for Affordable Health Care, Inc." that throw up commericals sounding like a citizens group (which it isn't). I don't trust either group to be honest. For instance, this bill started as S33 and if you go look at the voting records you'll see I think it was 7 or 8 Dems that voted for it. I think people put too much faith in their party.
    Health care is expensive and rising for consumers and yet health care can afford to pay millions to lobbyists and are posting record profits yearly. Doesn't add up in my book.

  • mdh67 Apr 1, 2011

    anything to eliminate, frivolous lawsuits. You sue someone in Europe, you lose, YOU pay their legal fees. Why dont we have that here in the USA? Trial lawyers, wouldnt hear of it!

    That's actually not true. We do have that rule. We have a rule that even if you win, if you do not win more than the defendant was willing to pay you, you pay the defendant's costs of going to trial. We also have a rule that prohibits frivolous lawsuits and the State Bar can take you law license if you file one. You shouldn't believe all of the insurance propaganda. This bill will take away your rights to access a court.

  • Mad Dawg Apr 1, 2011

    If bill becomes law, which I hope it does, looks like the greedy, blood-sucking personal injury attorneys will have to find a more honorable profession to make a living.

  • Arapaloosa Apr 1, 2011

    @explorerford, If docs don't need to carry multi-million dollar insurance policies, then the insurance companies will lose income from premiums; so your whole argument is invalid...

    I find people that go around looking for a reason to sue somebody to be a drain on society, it makes me sick.

  • blackdog Apr 1, 2011

    The GOP is the best party money can buy.

  • A Libertarian Apr 1, 2011

    explorer and other liberals and socialists here - It is not about the friv lawsuits - it is about medical malpractice insurance and the extgreme high rates. Just so you know, 38 cents of every healthcare dollar you pay goes toward this which goes to attorneys and then funnels to the liberals. Why do you think the liberals are aginst cutting healthcost costs. If you look at states with this law and the law resrincting reg, you will find your healthcare is less than half of what it is nationally. This is what the liberal fight against. If you want to cut your healthcare in half, this law, reduce regs and buy against state lines. Everybody knows this, if you want to argue, tell me why states with htese options pay less than half than the national average.

  • blackdog Apr 1, 2011

    Looks like the insurance industry lobbyists have been effective on our representatives.

  • tmh1375 Apr 1, 2011

    "The bill for ER docs only changes the standard of negligence from "standard of care" to "gross negligence"." ONLY? The repercussions of that are huge. The quality of care is going to dramatically decrease. Did you look to see what is defined as an emergency under that proposal? 42 U.S.C. ยง 1395dd(e)(1), is what it points to for defining and a woman in labor falls into that category.
    This bill isn't going to decrease costs for anyone but insurance companies. Those decreases won't be passed on to consumers. Your rates will continue to go up and your life will be expendable. Product liability changes aren't just medical either. Car seats, etc.
    WHO do your elected officials work for? WHAT in this bill is geared towards your safety and wellbeing as a citizen? WHO is being protected? The People?