Battle Flares Over 38-Year-Old Medical Malpractice Law

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Consumer advocates want to raise the cap on non-economic malpractice damages. Also: Limo safety is a priority in the Legislature; California's roads rank low.

SACRAMENTO — A long-dormant conflict over medical malpractice is heating up again at the state Capitol.

A coalition of consumer advocates, trial lawyers and the nurses union is preparing to gather signatures for a state ballot initiative to raise the state's cap on certain medical malpractice damages.

The campaign wants voters to change a 38-year-old California law that puts a $250,000 cap on the amount of money that juries can award for non-economic "pain and suffering" damages.

The law puts no ceiling on jury awards for economic losses, future medical costs or punitive damages for malicious and willful misconduct by healthcare providers.

A key element would seek to raise the cap from the current amount to about $1 million — and then increase it each year based on inflation. Supporters say they expect to be ready in September to start gathering the 400,000-plus voter signatures needed to qualify for the November 2014 ballot.

"We are certainly planning an initiative absent any action legislatively," said Jamie Court, president of the Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica advocacy group. "It's pretty clear that we are getting two thumbs down from the Legislature."

Opponents — including 700 organizations representing doctors, hospitals, clinics and insurers — are already on the counterattack. Raising the cap, they contend, would increase medical costs for consumers and the state by billions of dollars a year.

Not surprisingly, both sides have commissioned polls that support their positions on the medical malpractice law.

Limousine safety

Legislators are scrambling to pass safety bills after a young bride and four friends were killed in a May 4 limousine fire while crossing San Francisco Bay. Proposals by Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) are moving toward the governor's desk.

SB 109 requires that new or modified limousines have two rear doors and two push-out safety windows. Another bill would require passengers have access to fire extinguishers. "It is vital that limo passengers remain safe on wedding, birthday, prom or other occasions," she said, "so that celebrations do not turn into tragedies."

Bumpy roads

Had a bumpy drive lately? Turns out, California's state highway system ranks 47th in the nation in overall performance and efficiency, according to the latest annual study by the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles libertarian think-tank.

More than 16% of urban interstate pavement in California is in poor condition, said the report written by David Hartgen, a retired professor of transportation at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Gov. Jerry Brown's administration is unimpressed by the report. It's based on 4-year-old data and doesn't reflect more recent improvements to California's highways, said Department of Transportation spokesman Gareth Lacy.

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Twitter: @marclifsher


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