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House gives final approval to civil liablity changes

February 17, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A measure to restrict awards for lawsuits cleared another obstacle Thursday.

The bill would restrict venue to the location of the injury, cap most punitive damages at $250,000 and for health care providers, limit punitive damages to $250,000 total, without regard to the number of people named in the case.

Many House Democrats said they supported the bill but were concerned about the provision limiting liability for health care providers because they said the bill's language would group doctors with drug and tobacco companies.

Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said he could not support the measure despite his belief that the civil liability system needs some changes.

Harris said the bill had been hijacked by "drug companies and big tobacco," and Gov. Matt Blunt and House leadership had chosen to support these interests instead of ordinary Missourians.

The language of the bill, however, makes no specific mention of special protections for these types of businesses.

"There is nothing in this bill to give those types of businesses special protection," sponsor Rep. Richard Byrd, R-St. Louis County, said. "It applies the rules the same across the board."

Blunt has said he strongly supports changes to the civil liability system to protect doctors and encourage economic growth. A spokesman for the governor said Blunt was pleased with the current legislation.

"The governor supports the tort reform legislation and applauds the House for acting so quickly upon it," spokesman Paul Sloca said.

Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Bollinger, said the provisions that restrict venue and cap punitive damages for health care providers would have a notable impact on the malpractice insurance premiums for doctors in the state. Proponents argue that doctors are practicing outside of the state or leaving the profession because of high insurance premiums.

But Democrats said only the states that have included insurance reform provisions have been able to lower malpractice insurance premiums.

"Caps are not enough to lower premiums," Rep. Brian Burnett, D-Jackson County, said."Big corporations are being protected at the expense of the citizens of this state, and I don't think it's a mistake that the big fund-raisers of the majority party are reaping the benefits."

Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, said he believed insurance premiums would decrease, and the state had put the insurance industry on notice that it would need to explain if insurance rates did not go down.

"We're dedicated to this, and if the insurance rates don't start going down, we're going to come to the insurance companies next," he said. "And we're not going to wait very long."

The issue elicited a degree of bipartisan support, but Democrats said the combination of the failure to address the issue of insurance reform and the grouping of doctors and drug companies as medical care providers was too much to overcome.

"I was afraid that if we all voted yes, it would send the message that we're done," Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, said. "The real teeth in this process at cutting insurance costs is in the insurance reform."

An additional bill to address insurance reform is winding its way through committee, and while Baker said it was insufficient, it was the right starting point.

The bill, also sponsored by Byrd, is awaiting a hearing in the House Insurance Policy Committee.