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Halfway home on tort reform

By By Sid Salter / syndicated columnist
Oct. 9, 2002
Well, what do you know? They went home sheep and came back lawmakers. What a difference a weekend makes.
After years of dodging the issue of tort reform and playing footsie with the special interests on all sides of the question, the Legislature finally knuckled down and hammered out a reasonably fair compromise on medical malpractice tort reform.
Is is a perfect bill by anyone's criteria? No. Trial lawyers are unhappy with it. So are many doctors and health professionals. Insurance companies, ditto. But it may well be the best bill that could have emerged from the politically fractious negotiations.
Clearly, pressure from the rank-and-file in the Legislature was brought to bear on the leadership to get a bill to the floor in both houses.
Substantial reforms
The high points of the medical malpractice litigation reform bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove include:
Caps non-economic damages or so-called "pain and suffering" at $500,000 in medical malpractice cases filed on or after Jan. 1, 2003. The cap would increase to $750,000 in 2011; and to $1 million in 2017. Actual damages were not capped.
Venue concerns were addressed by changing the law so that lawsuits can only be filed in the county where the alleged cause of action occurred.
Statute of limitations for suing a Mississippi nursing home would be two years instead of the current three. Nursing home records will also now have the same degree of confidentiality as other medical records.
Joint and several liability was addressed by holding defendants responsible for their percentage of fault in pain-and-suffering awards. It also provides that the financial liability of one defendant can't be transferred.
For actual damages, the compromise dictates that if a defendant is found less than 30 percent at fault in a malpractice lawsuit, that person would pay only that percentage of damages. If the defendant is found liable for 30 percent or more, that person would pay up to 50 percent of the damages. Over the last 20 years, current law has held that a person found to less than 1 percent liable could be made to pay up to 50 percent of a plaintiff's damages.
Unless negligence can be proven, doctors who prescribe and pharmacists to dispense U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved drugs would be made immune from lawsuits filed against drug manufacturers.
Clearly, the Legislature moved in the final hours of negotiations toward a bill that take solid steps to protect doctors and pharmacists from the lawsuits mills and restores a healthier future for the availability of health care in rural Mississippi.
Unfinished business
But while the Legislature deserves some applause for finally getting it together on medical malpractice tort reform, lawmakers still have some unfinished business. General civil justice reform is an issue that goes hand-in-hand with medical malpractice tort reform.
Just as there is a difference between pharmaceutical manufacturers and the corner drug store in terms of medical malpractice litigation, there is also a difference between multi-national corporations and your local hardware store.
Mississippi needs to shed the skin of our slimy image as a lawsuit mecca and make common sense, fair reforms of the civil justice system that will benefit all Mississippians. Gov. Musgrove promised to put the issue before the Legislature and the Legislature has promised to give it a fair hearing. The taxpayers should hold their feet to the fire and see that those promises are kept.

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