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@NCCapitol

One more step for medical malpractice changes

Posted April 21, 2011 3:43 p.m. EDT

— A measure rewriting the state’s medical malpractice laws is headed toward a final vote in the state Senate – but not before House lawmakers moderated some of its more controversial provisions.

One of the changes House lawmakers made Wednesday was to remove the cap on non-economic damages for death, paralysis, brain damage and other major, tangible injuries. Non-economic damages would still be capped at $500,000 for intangible damages like pain and suffering and emotional distress.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Johnathan Rhyne, R-Lincoln, argued that lawmakers should limit all non-economic damages. “It shouldn’t be left unfettered to a jury,” Rhyne said. “They’re totally unpredictable, and you never know what you’re going to get.”

But amendment sponsor Rep. Grey Mills, R-Iredell, disagreed. “You can’t treat all cases the same,” he argued. “I believe that juries should decide the cases and the value of the cases after hearing all the evidence. I don’t believe we should decide here in Raleigh.”

The House also modified a proposed change in standards for emergency room doctors. Earlier proposals would have made ER providers immune from lawsuits except for deliberate acts of negligence. Under the House version, an ER patient would have to provide more evidence of malpractice than a regular patient, but the doctor could still be sued for a mistake.

The measure passed the House with strong bipartisan support. The Senate will decide next week whether to agree to the changes.

The NC Advocates for Justice, the trial lawyers’ association, praised the changes. "We're grateful to legislators in the House for improving the bill,” said Dick Taylor, chief executive of the organization. “The House's changes will protect patients and consumers. We hope the Senate will join the House and concur."

But lawyers and other advocates say they’re still concerned about several other proposals to change liability laws. House lawmakers are also considering changes to the state’s workers compensation system. A key committee is set to debate that measure next week.