A misguided effort to control health care costs in North Carolina by making it more difficult for victims of medical malpractice and surgical errors to receive adequate and fair compensation for injuries and wrongful deaths has been temporarily derailed by a governor’s veto.
In rejecting SB 33 on June 24, 2011, Gov. Bev Perdue scored what may be only a temporary victory for injured patients and family members of people who lost their lives following an act of negligence or mistake by a doctor, surgeon, nurse or pharmacist who was responsible for providing emergency health care. The bill, which passed with strong support from Republicans in the NC House of Representatives and Senate, would require most emergency medicine malpractice victims to prove health care provider liability and the extent of injuries in separate civil lawsuits, and then cap noneconomic damages trial juries could award at $500,000.
I call the governor’s decision to uphold patients’ legal protections possibly temporary because SB 33 now returns to the NC General Assembly, where votes by 60 percent of members of both legislative chambers could make the bill law despite Perdue’s veto. And even if the representatives and senators do not override the veto, the governor said in a press statement that she is "strongly committed to passing meaningful medical malpractice reform. Doctors, hospitals and nursing homes in North Carolina are all being burdened by medical malpractice insurance rates that are too high."
This means to me that both a majority of North Carolina lawmakers and Governor Perdue are bound and determined to place caps on medical malpractice damage awards, thinking that doing so will reduce health care bills in the Tar Heel State. They are wrong in thinking that.
All malpractice dollars — insurance, jury verdicts and insurance company settlements, so-called "defensive medicine" and premiums paid by practitioners, hospitals and clinics to insurers — account for a mere 2.4 percent of the annual health care tab in the United States. The only thing placing limits on the amount of monetary compensation medical malpractice victims can receive at trial accomplishes is making those people’s financial recovery from loss of a limb, extended illness, permanent disability or death of a loved one more difficult, if not impossible.
Several states, such as Virginia (VA), that adopted medical malpractice caps since insurance company and big business apologists began beating the drum for "tort reform" (read: limited or zero liability for corporations) have recently raised or removed those unjust infringements on personal injury and wrongful death victims’ rights. To see North Carolina, a state where my law firm colleagues and I regularly represent plaintiffs in medical malpractice lawsuits, plunge headlong into what has proven to be an unfair and ineffective policy saddens me.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.