Medical malpractice bill on move in the House
With health care and business groups lobbying for changes in the legal system, a House subcommittee Wednesday approved a wide-ranging bill aimed at helping doctors and hospitals fend off medical-malpractice lawsuits.
One key proposal in the bill, HB 827, would shield hospitals from liability if negligence is caused by physicians who are independent contractors. For example, hospitals might contract with independent radiologists or emergency-room doctors to provide care instead of hiring staff physicians.
Other parts of the bill would drill into the inner workings of medical-malpractice lawsuits and take steps such as toughening standards for expert witnesses. Another proposal would make it harder to prove negligence when doctors face allegations that they failed to order extra diagnostic tests.
The Republican-controlled House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted 9-4 along party lines to approve the bill, after hearing opposition from two parents who said they lost children to medical malpractice and another woman who said she was blinded.
Bill sponsor Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach) said he hopes changes in the medical-malpractice legal system will help Florida attract high-quality physicians.
"I bring this bill not to limit access to courts, not to limit remedies but to make sure that Florida is a place that is fair in the litigation process for physicians and that we become a magnet for the best talent so that we don't have to hear sad stories like this in the future," Gaetz said, referring to the opponents who testified.
Critics questioned whether the bill would make it more difficult for malpractice victims to receive justice through the courts. Rep. Mike Clelland (D-Lake Mary) said his sister died at age 24 in what his family considered medical malpractice.
"To further insulate hospitals or doctors in this bill doesn't sit well with me,'' he said. "It's an already very, very difficult and very regulated area of the law for justice to be served. And to add additional, sort of roadblocks or hurdles for an injured patient, I don't think is the right thing to do."
Major parts of the bill are similar to proposals lawmakers have considered in the past. But the measure is part of a broader push this year by groups such as the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida to try to place new limits on lawsuits, an issue known by the shorthand of "tort reform."
At least four bills have been filed in the Senate that include medical-malpractice changes, though they have not come up for committee votes. The House bill is next slated to go to the Judiciary Committee before being ready to move to the full House.
Much of the bill deals with changing the way malpractice cases are carried out. For instance, it would restrict expert testimony in cases that involve medical specialists. Only experts who have the same specialty would be able to testify — shrinking the pool of potential expert witnesses.
Also, the bill would change an important legal standard in cases that include allegations that doctors should have gone beyond basic diagnostic procedures and ordered additional tests. In such cases, the bill would require "clear and convincing evidence" that physicians failed to meet standards of care, a tougher requirement than in current law.
Gaetz said the higher standard could help reduce "defensive medicine," which involves doctors ordering costly, unnecessary tests because of fears they will face lawsuits. Grant Kuvin, a Central Florida attorney who represents malpractice victims, said the new standard would be unattainable.
"It's unfair to patients,'' Kuvin said. "It further closes the doors to the courthouse."
The Florida Justice Association, a plaintiffs' attorneys group, is spearheading opposition to the bill and tried to bolster its arguments Tuesday with testimony of the two parents whose children died and a woman who was blinded. Melbourne resident Michael Lawley described how his 31-year-old daughter suffered irreversible brain damage and died after a series of errors at a hospital.
"If there's not accountability, you'll never have responsibility," Lawley said.
Subcommittee member Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) said the testimony "breaks my heart" but he continues to support the bill.
"I still believe these good folks have remedies in the system … to compensate them for wrongful acts,'' Boyd said. "And I don't think anybody on this panel or anybody in this room would think that a negligent act ought not to be taken seriously and dealt with appropriately."