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Gov. Matt Blunt touts tort reform legislation at ceremony in Cape

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

(Photo)
Missouri Governor Matt Blunt signed ceremonial healthcare Tort Reform Bills during a stop over at St. Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau.
Flanked by local doctors and lawmakers, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt touted a new tort reform law at a ceremonial bill signing Monday in Cape Girardeau at Saint Francis Medical Center.

The Cape Girardeau stop was the last of the governor's visits around the state Monday in advance of his plans to sign the legislation this afternoon in Jefferson City.

Blunt said the law makes sweeping litigation and medical malpractice reforms to address what he said was a medical crisis in Missouri.

"This legislation sets a new standard in our efforts to prevent physicians from being forced from Missouri because of soaring medical malpractice costs while at the same time ensuring businesses will be able to flourish without the threat of job-killing legal awards hanging over their heads," Blunt said in a statement.

But many Democrats and trial lawyers contend the legislation simply makes it harder for injured Missourians to obtain justice and money.

Former Democratic governor Bob Holden vetoed less restrictive versions of the bill each of the past two years, objecting that they imposed limits on all injury lawsuits -- not just malpractice cases.

Blunt made litigation reform a key part of his campaign last fall, and Republican lawmakers made it a top priority this year. The bill was one of the first to reach Blunt's desk.

The bill takes effect Aug. 28.

Under the legislation, most lawsuits must be filed in the county where the alleged injury or wrongdoing occurred. The provision is designed to cut down on venue shopping in which attorneys try to file suit in the county where they believe jurors will be most sympathetic to their claims.

The legislation also limits the money juries can award victims. It caps punitive damages at $500,000 or five times the actual damages, whichever is greater. It also lowers Missouri's current inflation-adjusted cap of $579,000 for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, in medical malpractice cases to a flat $350,000.

The legislation also repeals Missouri's current shared liability law which requires defendants -- even if only slightly at fault -- to pick up the tab for co-defendants who are unable to pay their share of a jury award. The legislation would require shared liability only for defendants found to be at least 51 percent at fault and only for actual, not punitive, damages. Other defendants would be responsible for paying only their proportion of damages.

The American Medical Association, Blunt said, has listed Missouri as a malpractice crisis state where it has become increasingly hard to recruit and retain doctors.

House Speaker Rod Jetton of Marble Hill praised the legislation. "I think Missouri citizens are going to be better for this," he said.

Dr. Ann Behrend-Uhls, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Saint Francis Medical Center, said the legislation should help rein in malpractice insurance costs that are driving doctors out of business.

But she said it won't mean lower doctors' bills for most patients. That's because most patients already are paying discounted prices through health insurance programs, Behrend-Uhls said.

Doctors, she said, have had to absorb the cost of escalating malpractice insurance premiums. "We are eating that cost," she said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123


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