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Wednesday, February 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Legislature 2004

Cap on lawsuit damages clears Senate once again

OLYMPIA — For the second year in a row, the Washington Senate has approved a sweeping package of lawsuit limits that would protect doctors, governments, builders and big corporations in various legal actions.

Last year, the Republican-backed measure, which includes a cap on pain-and-suffering damages in medical-malpractice cases, died in the Democratic House.

The $350,000 cap will likely meet the same fate this year, but other elements of the package may become law, a powerful House Democrat said yesterday.

For more than a year, the Liability Reform Coalition has offered the medical profession as the poster child for reining in lawsuits, an effort commonly known as tort reform.

Doctors argue that big malpractice judgments are driving insurance costs through the roof, forcing doctors to leave the state and leaving patients with less access to health care. Tort-reform advocates hoped that message would help carry a sweeping package of changes into law.

"There are some counties in this state where there's no doctors left to deliver babies," Senate Majority Leader Bill Finkbeiner said before Senate Bill 5728 passed 27-22 yesterday. "We're saying: 'Here's a solution to a very serious problem ... .' "

But even as the tort-reform bill passed, its supporters were downplaying the malpractice pain-and-suffering cap, controversial and difficult to pass because the change would require a constitutional amendment. "This is not just about doctors," said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. "Everybody who's in business who is required to buy liability insurance can barely afford it."

Opponents attacked the bill as a way to slip unpopular changes in on the doctors' coattails. "In the guise of trying to help doctors, they've passed a bill that protects a whole range of wrongdoers," said Larry Shannon, executive director of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association, which opposes tort reform.

House Judiciary Chairwoman Pat Lantz, a Democrat and ally of the trial lawyers, said the House plans to vote next week on more than 12 bills aimed at reducing malpractice costs and limiting other lawsuits.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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