Bill lifts damages cap for medical injuries

By Tim Hoover
http://www.denverpost.com

Injured patients would be able to sue doctors for more money under a bill that won initial Senate approval Thursday and which its sponsor called “negotiation by legislative gunpoint.”

Senate president Peter Groff, D-Denver, said his bill is a reasonable measure that restores balance to Colorado’s medical malpractice laws.

Under current law, a person suing a doctor or hospital for malpractice can recover $300,000 in noneconomic — or “pain and suffering” — damages. Senate Bill 164 would raise the cap on noneconomic damages to the same amount allowed in general personal-injury cases, about $450,000.

The bill also would allow injured patients to recover separate damages for “disfigurement and impairment.”

All damages in medical malpractice cases would still be capped at $1 million, unless a judge approves a higher award.

Steep jumps in rates feared

Republicans said the measure, which is being pushed by the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, would cause steep increases in malpractice insurance rates.

“Right at the time we should be trying to lower costs and increase access, this legislation is going in the wrong direction,” said Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.

His amendment to cap attorneys’ fees in medical malpractice cases at no more than 10 percent of noneconomic damages awarded was defeated.

Critics said the bill also would make general health care costs rise because doctors would have to start practicing “defensive medicine,” ordering extra tests and procedures to back up their diagnoses.

“Physicians will look at more and more ways to cover their butts,” said Sen. Bob Hagedorn, D-Aurora, the lone Democrat opposing the bill.

But defenders of the legislation, such as Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon , D-Denver, a lawyer, said opponents were exaggerating. He said juries often award nothing in medical malpractice cases.

An amendment offered

In an effort to address doctors’ concerns, Groff offered an amendment that would make it harder for insurers to raise their medical malpractice premiums. Under the amendment, which passed, insurers would have to show that their ability to pay claims had been negatively affected because of increased jury awards as a result of the legislation.

The amendment also delayed the bill’s effective date.

Groff, who has a law degree, later said that the Feb. 1, 2009, effective date would provide an incentive for doctors, lawyers and insurance companies to sit down and come to an agreement. If there is no compromise on medical malpractice, the legislation would take effect.

“Moving this legislation forward is going to bring people to the table,” he said. “It’s kind of negotiating by legislative gunpoint.”

The Senate approved the bill on an 18-15 vote and must approve the measure once more before it can go to the House.

Tim Hoover: 303-954-1626 or thoover@denverpost.com
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