Thursday, March 20, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Reduce errors, cap awards

Caps on jury awards for non-economic damages — pain and suffering — in malpractice cases are inappropriate unless combined with rigorous efforts to reduce medical errors.

The malpractice debate in Olympia, fueled by complaints of sky-high insurance premiums, has the House and Senate talking past one another.

The state Senate has passed a bill that would cap jury awards for non-economic damages at $250,000. Proponents are quick to mention the limit is on top of whatever a jury decides is appropriate future medical care and future economic losses.

This process is hardly a science. Putting a figure on future earnings and obligations of an elderly patient or a young one with no family responsibilities is always difficult. Forecasting future medical costs is nearly impossible too. Ask employers.

The number that fires the whole debate, however, is the money awarded for pain and suffering. How does one put a price tag on a lifetime of pain, disfigurement and emotional trauma from medical incompetence or a hospital's sloppy procedures?

If a cap is needed to rein in a handful of spectacular eight-figure jury awards, $250,000 is a woefully parsimonious start.

The business of malpractice is unavoidable. Wronged patients cannot attract legal help if the potential award is not large enough to make it worth a lawyer's time. Meanwhile, nothing hamstrings the legal muscle insurance companies take into the courtroom or settlement negotiations.

As crude an instrument as the tort system may be, it affords the public a measure of accountability, Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler says. Tort reform must be balanced by measures that hold bad doctors and negligent hospitals accountable.

That is where the state House is looking, at bills to reduce medical errors and re-examine elements of the dispute, such as a time limit on filing claims. Legislation would promote information sharing and insurance credits for error-reduction programs.

As loudly as doctors complain about premiums, the public is not seeing compelling evidence of the medical community policing its own ranks. Doctors with excessive claims activity or who've lost hospital privileges are a liability for the profession as well as the unsuspecting public.

Caps on pain and suffering are not a casual decision. Limiting the prerogatives of a jury requires a constitutional change, with a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and a majority of the state voters.

Neither is likely with a penny-pinching ceiling of $250,000 and a failure to pass laws to reduce medical errors as well as saving insurance companies money.


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