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House Bill Would Shield Drug Makers

House Bill Would Shield Drug Makers [The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.]

From News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) (March 24, 2011)

March 24--RALEIGH -- The House version of the medical malpractice reform bill that cleared the Senate this month would protect drug manufacturers from liability in lawsuits.

The draft legislation, presented Wednesday to the House Select Committee on Tort Reform, would also lower the cap on noneconomic damages -- such as pain and suffering -- to $250,000 from each defendant. There is currently no limit on those kinds of damages; the Senate bill would cap damages at $500,000.

The bill is expected to be filed in the next day or two, said committee chairman Johnathan Rhyne Jr. The Lincolnton Republican told the committee that the purpose of the bill was "not to make it easier or harder to sue," but to balance the impact lawsuits have on "society and the economy."

Besides including the product liability protection and lowering the cap on damages, the draft bill differs from Senate Bill 33 in several other ways, including:

Punitive damages awarded in any verdict exceeding $100,000 would not go to the plaintiff, as they do now. Instead, one-fourth of the amount over $100,000 would go to the plaintiff and the rest would go into a state fund that is used to support public schools. Rhyne said that provision recognizes a benefit to society when punitive damages are awarded.

Current law requires that a malpractice lawsuit can’t proceed until a medical expert reviews the case and finds that the medical care was substandard. The bill would require the expert to review all available medical records.

The proposed law retains SB33’s controversial protection for emergency-room physicians, which opponents contend sets such a high standard that a doctor would have to be intoxicated in order to be found liable. It also incorporates the requirement that the cap on noneconomic damages be adjusted every three years to reflect the Consumer Price Index.

GSK executive speaks

Committee members got their first look at the draft bill Wednesday. Rhyne said next week two hours will be set aside to hear from various speakers. But time was made Wednesday to hear from one speaker who couldn’t attend next week.

John F. Del Giorno, vice president for government relations at drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, told committee members that he has been working closely with the N.C. Chamber of Commerce on reform issues. He said the state’s legal climate is important to the business community.

"Companies look for fairness and predictability," he said. Unfortunately, Del Giorno said, the justice system can be expensive.

Protection from liability

The bill proposes to protect drug makers and sellers from liability in lawsuits so long as their product has been approved by government regulators. Patient advocates and trial lawyers gearing up to fight round two of the bill say the product-liability provision is an extreme measure that only one other state, Michigan, has enacted; an effort to repeal that law is under way.

"These proposals would benefit CEOs of corporations, drug companies and groups like the North Carolina Medical Society at the expense of the average North Carolinian," Dick Taylor of N.C. Advocates for Justice said in a statement. "These priorities are upside down." or 919-829-4576

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Posted: March 2011