Legal reform gets underway in the House

NC House lawmakers are considering changes to the state's liability laws that consumer advocates say could be devastating to medical and product safety.

Posted Updated

Laura Leslie

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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