NC House considers new liability lawsuit bill

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A Republican push to change how liability lawsuits against companies and doctors are handled was panned by consumer advocates and praised by business backers at a North Carolina House committee meeting Thursday.

The panel heard public reaction to the wide-ranging legislation introduced the day before to revamp "tort" lawsuits, which determine responsibility for harm and decide whether compensation is deserved.

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 would:

— protect 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 noneconomic damages, with an inflation adjustment every three years.

— add protections against medical malpractice lawsuits for adult care homes.

The proposed law is part of a larger effort by GOP legislators 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.

Pharmaceutical companies have "a very strong interest in this legislation," said product liability defense lawyer Frederick Rom of Raleigh, who added that 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, he said.

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.

Henderson primary care physician John Faulkner said he's been both a defendant and a plaintiff in the courtroom. Nearly a decade ago he sued a regional medical center 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, he said.

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

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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