Briley’s judiciary spot clashes against GOP’s tort reform push

By John Rodgers

State Rep. Rob Briley was named chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Thursday, which puts the Nashville Democrat on a direct collision course with energized Republicans in the state Senate over the issue of medical malpractice reform.

The Republicans, with newly elected Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), have numerical control of the state Senate.

During this year’s legislative session, the GOP again plans to push medical malpractice reform, something that healthcare providers like doctors and hospitals have been hoping to make law.

The medical industry wants to limit “merit-less� lawsuits from patients and the corresponding cost of defending those complaints as well as capping court ordered awards on a patient’s “non-economic damages� like pain and suffering, said Gary Zelizer, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Medical Association.

“If a physician is responsible for doing harm, we want to be sure to provide to that patient or that patients’ family everything that they need to make them whole,� Zelizer said. “But it’s the non-economic damages that certainly in many other states have driven up the cost of malpractice (insurance) premiums.�

But when the Republicans try to maneuver their medical malpractice reforms through the state House, they will run into Briley (D-Nashville), a trial lawyer that was appointed as chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

Trial lawyers like Briley are generally against many aspects of tort reform that Republicans and healthcare providers typically push.

“I’m opposed to taking away rights from people,� Briley said. “And I don’t see how restricting people’s rights by limiting the ability of a court system to address a wrong in any way improves patient safety.�

The judiciary committee handles bills regarding medical malpractice reform. Last year, Zelizer and the Tennessee Medical Association’s tort reform package was killed in a House Judiciary subcommittee.

“It’s an uphill battle, no question,� Zelizer said of passing medical malpractice reform through the House Judiciary Committee.

Many Democrats, which have a majority in the state House and on the judiciary panel, are traditionally skeptical that a problem exists with frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits in Tennessee.

Many are against hot-button aspects of medical malpractice reform that Republicans usually favor, such as limiting the pain and suffering damages that can be awarded to a patient in a lawsuit. Tennessee doesn’t have any caps on the monetary damages a judge or jury can award to a patient in a medical malpractice case.

Reform supporters hope to put a $250,000 cap on “non-economic� damages.

Briley is hopeful that the two sides can come together and a compromise can be reached on the topic.

When the debate begins, supporters of both sides of the issue can have a new state report to back their arguments.

The report found that patients were awarded $125 million in medical liability damages in 2005, up $15 million from 2004. The vast majority of that money is paid by insurance companies providing coverage to healthcare providers.

Most of the time, however, the healthcare provider settled out of court. In the report, $119 million of the $125 million was awarded in out-of-court settlements. Only five cases were decided in court in 2005.

The Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association said that the report showed that the monetary damages awarded did not cause an increase in insurance premium for doctors.

In the report, 2,361 claims were resolved in 2005 without any monetary payment from the doctor or hospital’s insurance.

Another Nashville Democrat, Rep. Janis Sontany, was named as an officer on the Judiciary Committee, serving as secretary.
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