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Lawmakers tackle comp, continue debate on tort reform

By SYLVIA ADCOCK, Staff Writer

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Lawmakers last week continued to consider sweeping changes in the state’s tort system and got their first look at a bill that would overhaul workers’ compensation.

The House Select Committee on Tort Reform stood by a measure in a medical-malpractice bill that would allow bifurcation of trials on the motion of either party.

Plaintiff’s lawyers are against the measure in part because they like to make sure the jury is hearing the case in its complete context, which includes damages. Defense lawyers would rather have a separate trial on liability and damages. Introducing damage issues into the trial can create sympathy for the plaintiff among jurors.

Rep. Bill Faison introduced an amendment that would remove the measure from the bill, saying it would increase costs. Faison said that hiring out-of-state expert witnesses is expensive – up to $20,000 for one appearance.

“To get a doctor to come into the courtroom, you’ve got to get them from out of state,” he said. Bringing the expert back for a second phase of a trial would increase the costs of litigation, he said.

Faison’s amendment was voted down.

The committee agreed to put off discussion of liability in emergency room settings until next week. Under the bill, a person injured by negligence of an emergency health-care provider would have to prove gross negligence, which would effectively bar most lawsuits. The bill also caps noneconomic damages for all plaintiffs in medical-malpractice cases at $500,000.

A revised version of the bill also incorporates products-liability changes, but under the revisions the changes apply only to drugs. The bill says that manufacturers and sellers of pharmaceuticals won’t be held liable so long as they complied with FDA standards. An earlier, broader, version applied to other consumer products.

Under a workers’ comp bill introduced last week, the state would have greater access to an injured worker’s medical records. Most importantly, it would restrict the period of workers’ compensation to 500 weeks in cases of temporary total disability. Only in cases of total and permanent disability would the employer be paid disability indefinitely. Currently there are no caps on how long a worker can be on temporary total disability.

   The bill says the act shall be known as the “Protecting and Putting North Carolina Back to Work Act.” Plaintiffs’ lawyers say that lawmakers need to consider what they call the “cost shift” – meaning some of the injured workers will need other kinds of help from the state if they are not on disability.

   The bill would also reduce the number of commissioners on the N.C. Industrial Commission from seven to five.

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