Legislature working on bill that would cap malpractice lawsuits

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SALT LAKE CITY -- There is a fight over medical malpractice lawsuits at the Capitol. Senate Bill 145 seeks to cut damage awards in half in pain and suffering lawsuits.

There is a lot of money at stake in this one, and it's pitting the medical community against lawyers. The proposal is to put a hard cap on malpractice awards: $250,000. Right now, the limit is $480,000.

The Utah Medical Association is in favor of the idea, calling it tort reform. Leaders there say that's a key component of reducing medical costs.

"There are 33 states that have hard caps, and here in Utah we don't have a hard cap. So, we've seen the results of implementing a non-economic damages hard cap, and that has brought costs down, and a prime example is Texas," says Michelle McOmber, executive vice president of the Utah Medical Association.

The bill has powerful opponents: trial lawyers and Sen. John Valentine, R-Provo. A major concern for opponents is that it would take away a patient's rights if they have been injured, and the cap would apply even if multiple people are part of the same lawsuit.

"It may not even be constitutional," Valentine says. "Our courts have traditionally held that if you have too much of a limit on the ability to recover for injuries, then the court will strike that down."

Doctors and lawyers have competing interests in this bill, and it could easily turn into one of the most hard-fought issues of this session. Internally, the committee assigned to hear the bill has changed, causing a stir since that also affects its chances of survival.

So far, no date has been set for the bill to appear in public. Until then, its contents are being tweaked behind the scenes.

E-mail: rpiatt@ksl.com

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