A Maryland Senate committee attempting to curb the escalating price of medical malpractice insurance took steps today that could result in fewer lawsuits against doctors, in part by sharply limiting the amount of money victims could recover in such suits.
After two days of often highly charged debate over whether the measure, if enacted, would have any effect on doctors' insurance rates, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee approved 8 to 2 a bill that includes a provision to cap awards for noneconomic losses at $350,000. Noneconomic awards are granted as compensation for the intangible "pain and suffering" that result from injuries such as disfigurement.
As part of the same bill the panel voted to change a longstanding and much-debated Maryland law barring defendants from revealing at trial any benefits their alleged victims have already recovered as a result of the injury.
But the panel voted to bar insurance companies from exercising a provision, common in many policies, that allows insurers to demand repayment for benefits paid if the victim later wins a lawsuit. The committee reasoned that a judge or jury is likely to give a victim less money if apprised that the person has already received some compensation for the injury.
If approved by the full Senate and then by the House of Delegates, the measure will make several technical changes in the way malpractice lawsuits are filed. One change would require that a victim, before filing suit, obtain a "certificate of merit" from a qualified doctor attesting that malpractice may have occurred.
The Senate committee's action dramatically alters a bill submitted by Gov. Harry Hughes and puts the senators sharply at odds with their counterparts in the House. Today's Senate action sets the stage for a major fight with the House over how to address the crisis in the availability and affordability of liability insurance.
The original bill submitted by Hughes would have capped noneconomic awards at $250,000 and would have applied to all civil lawsuits, instead of only to those alleging malpractice by doctors. But the Senate panel, arguing that doctors are suffering the most in a nationwide insurance drought, amended the bill to impose restrictions only on lawsuits resulting from charges of medical malpractice. It was an action that divided the Senate committee and provoked strong disagreement in the House.
"It's unconstitutional. I don't think it is; I know it is," insisted Del. Arthur S. Alperstein (D-Baltimore County), a lawyer who is vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "You can't create some rules for some people and other rules for other people. And it's not fair to all the other fields that are having a problem with their insurance."
Members of the Senate panel said they believed that their bill would be constitutional, but other legislators, echoing an array of lobbyists who have lined up against the bill, maintained that it is unfair.
"I think what the bills do is put the onus for resolving the malpractice crisis on the backs of the victims," said Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery).
House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) and several members of the House Judiciary Commitee said recently that they would prefer to limit to $1 million the amount for which any insured professional would be liable in a lawsuit. Awards exceeding that amount, they said, could be covered by a state-administered "catastrophic loss fund."
But that idea has so far received a cool reception in the Senate.