Tort Reform in Georgia

Here is the full text of a press release from AARP in Georgia:

“ATLANTA – A full year after Governor Sonny Perdue signed into law some of the nation’s most severe changes to the state’s court system – stripping average Georgia families of their Constitutional right to access the justice system – liability insurance rates for the state’s physicians continue to climb.

According to the Office of the Insurance Commissioner, five medical malpractice insurance companies filed requests to increase physicians’ premiums over the past 12 months. In fact, First Professionals Insurance moved to hike physician’s premiums just two days after Governor Perdue’s bill signing ceremony at Northside Hospital. Other companies include G.E. Medical Protective, State Volunteer Mutual Insurance Company, Medical Assurance Company of Mississippi and Medical Mutual Insurance Company of North Carolina.

Insurance costs for Georgia physicians have risen steadily since 2001. While insurance industry lobbyists and the Medical Association of Georgia have blamed the legal system for recent rate hikes, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America documented a record-breaking profit increase for the industry from 2002-2004: from $3 billion to over $41 billion. In September, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) announced that “the U.S. property and casualty insurance industry… holds assets in excess of 1.3 trillion dollars.”

A coalition of statewide organizations – including AARP Georgia, the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault (GNESA), the Georgia Council on Aging, Mothers Against Drunk Driving Georgia, the Women’s Policy Group and Georgia Watch – fought the drastic changes contained in Senate Bill 3, which passed the 2005 General Assembly with little opportunity for amendment.

“The objective of Senate Bill 3 was to limit the constitutional rights of taxpayers to seek justice,” said Georgia Watch Executive Director Allison Wall. “This law does nothing to address price gouging in the insurance industry, nothing to improve access to quality health care for our families, and it removes accountability where it is due – the insurance industry,” Wall added.

In August, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that the number of tort trials declined by nearly 80 percent from 1985 to 2003. Furthermore, new research published in the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine by renowned economists at Harvard University and Dartmouth College indicates that arbitrary, one-size-fits-all limits on the compensation that medical negligence victims can recover – such as Georgia’s $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages – have no impact on insurance premiums or the cost of practicing medicine.

There is growing evidence that the $350,000 cap also discriminates against families living on a fixed income, including retirees, war veterans and disabled Georgians. “Our worst fears have been realized over the past year,” said AARP Georgia President Cas Robinson.

Real-life examples include:

-Fayetteville retiree Chester Yerger, Jr. died in March of repeated negligence during treatment for prostate cancer. Chester’s wife and son began looking for legal representation immediately after his death, to no avail.

-In August, Bessie Lawrence, a 72 year-old Atlanta widow, went to an area hospital at her doctor’s request for what was supposed to be an overnight stay to receive a Vitamin K treatment because her blood level was too thin. Ten days later, Bessie died because a doctor clipped her carotid artery while attempting to place a central line in her neck. Bessie’s son, Melvin, continues his search for legal representation.

Other extreme provisions of the law – such as “offer of settlement” – require plaintiffs who successfully prove their case in court to pay the defendant’s legal fees if the court’s compensation falls short of 125 percent of any previous offers to settle. Jennifer Bivins, Legislative Committee Chair of the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault, notes that such “winner pays” barriers to justice affect more than just those families who suffered from medical negligence.

“Laws that force victims to pay their attackers’ court fees not only create re-victimization but also support a system that does not provide true justice,” said Bivins.

One week after Governor Perdue signed Senate Bill 3 into law, the State Court of Cobb County ruled unconstitutional changes to expert witness qualifications. Since then, courts around the state – including the state’s highest court – have struck down several key components of the law as unconstitutional, including provisions dealing with change of venue, offer of settlement and medical authorizations.”