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Friday, June 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Initiative filed to cap malpractice awards

Seattle Times staff reporter

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An initiative filed yesterday by a doctors' group would limit jury awards to patients who experience pain and suffering because of negligence by their doctors.

The initiative to the Legislature, which will be ready for supporters to begin gathering signatures in about a month, contains many of the provisions of a bill that stalled in the last legislative session.

Those include limits on jury awards for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering, a sliding-scale cap on attorneys' fees, voluntary arbitration and mandatory mediation of disputes.

There would be no limit to awards for economic damages, such as costs of lost wages and medical and hospital bills.

The group, Doctors for Sensible Lawsuit Reform, organized and funded by the Washington State Medical Association and other organizations, has until Dec. 31 to gather 197,734 signatures.

Dr. Maureen Callaghan, who filed the initiative on behalf of Doctors for Sensible Lawsuit Reform, said the doctors took the action to "break the gridlock" in the Legislature over liability reform.

She said doctors are "limiting vital services" such as obstetrics, trauma care and brain surgery for fear of being sued, and that some communities now lack necessary medical services.

For the past two years, doctors and their allies have brought bills to the Legislature to limit noneconomic damages. Last year, a comprehensive bill containing such caps passed the Republican-controlled Senate but stalled in the Democratic-controlled House.

Callaghan said "a few obstructionist politicians" refused to take action, despite a "demonstrated need for action."

One of those, House Judiciary Chair Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, said she worked hard last session to address the liability problem, and that doctors' non-negotiable approach wasn't helpful.

"I would like to see the gridlock broken as well," Lantz said. "My door has been wide open for negotiating sensible tort reform, sensible insurance reform, sensible reforms for patient safety. I want to get this job done as much as anyone. 'Meaningful' and 'sensible' are my words as well."

Doctors can't simply cap malpractice awards without addressing patient safety and the need for changes in the way doctors are disciplined, she said.

Over the next month, the initiative will be reviewed by the state and assigned a title, which can be challenged by opponents.

If the doctors obtain the required signatures, the initiative will then go to the Legislature, which can pass, modify or ignore it. If passed, it would become law. If modified, both the original and the modified version would go to the voters in fall of 2005. If the Legislature ignores the initiative, it would go to the voters then, as well.

The initiative includes these provisions:

• For any one patient, the total combined liability for noneconomic damages for all doctors and other health-care professionals would be limited to $350,000.

• For any one patient, total combined liability for noneconomic damages from hospitals and other health-care institutions would be limited to $700,000; no individual institution could be liable for more than $350,000.

• Limits on attorneys' fees would range from 40 percent of the first $50,000 recovered to 15 percent of any amount over $600,000.

• Patients wanting to sue must enter mediation first.

• No lawsuit may be brought more than three years after the alleged malpractice.

The initiative likely would require a constitutional amendment, which must be passed by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and then approved by voters.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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