Attack of the trial lawyers

The Baltimore Sun

Just because medical malpractice insurance rates have stabilized - and even gone down a bit for many doctors - doesn't mean it's time for Maryland to roll back hard-fought caps on noneconomic damages. But that's exactly what a group of lawmakers is attempting to do.

After all, it was just five years ago that rising malpractice costs were thought to be a crisis for the state, forcing doctors out of business and limiting access to quality medical care, especially in rural areas. Late in 2004, the General Assembly approved a package of reforms that included limiting how much plaintiffs and their lawyers could receive for what is often referred to as pain and suffering.

The legislation pending before House and Senate committees would allow two or more claimants to split up to 150 percent of the amount allowed for medical injury or wrongful death. It would also raise the noneconomic damage cap. Under current law, the award can expand to 125 percent but only if there are multiple claims and the victim died.

This year's effort to roll back the 2004 reforms may have picked up momentum because of the recent drop in malpractice insurance rates. The House version of the bill lists 10 of the Judiciary Committee's 22 members as co-sponsors, a sign that the proposal's chances of making it to the House floor are good. House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an advocate of malpractice reform, should do some lobbying of his own on this proposal.

Health care organizations oppose the rollback, as do the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and other business groups that fear it will raise liability insurance costs. That's a legitimate concern as many of Maryland's doctors are still struggling with high insurance rates. A majority of states impose some limits on malpractice awards, and capping noneconomic damages is better than the alternative of restricting how much plaintiffs receive for lost wages or medical costs.

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