Senators Make First Tort Reform Proposals

Mississippi senators are suggesting a $500,000 cap on non-economic damages in civil lawsuits, but some House members are balking at limits.

"I don't think we ought to be playing God,'' said Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, a trial lawyer who's among 26 lawmakers studying whether Mississippi should revise its civil justice system.

As the tort reform study group met into the night at the Capitol Wednesday, Blackmon said capping damage awards would limit the enjoyment of life for people who are injured. Lawmakers who support caps on non-economic damages say the change would help doctors, businesses and insurance companies predict their expenses if they lose lawsuits.

Senators in the study group approved several proposals Wednesday, including limiting where lawsuits can be filed and giving lawsuit immunity to doctors who properly prescribe FDA-approved drugs. Senators also approved requiring people who file medical malpractice suits to obtain the expert opinion of a person qualified in the same specialty as the doctor who's being sued.

The House was taking longer to develop its own list. The full study committee will vote on suggestions from both chambers before sending proposals to the entire Legislature in a special session that's expected in coming weeks.

The study group on Wednesday wrapped up testimony in a series of meetings on the civil justice system, hearing from doctors and corporate defense lawyers who want tort reform and trial lawyers who oppose it. The group meets again Thursday.

Doctors and business groups say Mississippi's record of multimillion dollar civil verdicts is hurting the state. Several doctors have complained that medical malpractice insurance is expensive and difficult to obtain.

Trial lawyers say insurance companies have been losing money on stocks and other investments and are pushing civil justice changes to minimize those losses. Some business and medical groups are advocating $250,000 caps on non-economic damages.

On Wednesday, trial lawyer Paul Minor of Biloxi testified caps would hurt people like Tim and Cindy Heldt of Purvis, whose 12-year-old son died in 1997. John Tyler Heldt had a urinary tract infection that went undiagnosed for two years and later developed severe kidney problems and lymphoma, his father said.

Minor represented the Heldt family in a civil lawsuit against a Hattiesburg doctor. The suit was tried while the boy was still alive. Minor said the family was willing to settle for the boy's projected medical costs, but the doctor's insurer, the St. Paul Co., would not settle. Minor said the $7 million verdict handed down later was about four times as large as what the family originally sought.

"To a company like St. Paul $250,000 is tip jar money,'' Minor said in reference to proposed jury award caps.

Katherine Kerby of Columbus, a former trial lawyer who has spent the last 11 years defending companies that are sued, told lawmakers small communities are struggling as Mississippi loses doctors who can't afford medical malpractice coverage. Kerby said Mississippians are hurt because people from other states are filing civil suits here, bogging down the court system.

Dr. Freda Bush of Jackson, an obstetrician-gynecologist, said Mississippi's civil justice system needs "not just a Band-Aid, but major surgery.'' She said rising insurance rates are making it more difficult for doctors to stay in business.

Physicians also are ordering more tests on patients simply to ward off possible lawsuits, Bush said.

"Doctors are beginning to practice what we call litigious medicine,'' she said.