The Connecticut Senate today passed medical malpractice legislation without caps on jury awards, while the supreme court in Tennessee ruled that comparative fault of a person that makes them a patient does not mitigate medical malpractice awards for negligence of a healthcare provider.
Connecticut Gov. John Rowland said he will veto any malpractice insurance proposal that does not set limits on pain and suffering damages, also known as noneconomic damages. Nevertheless, the Senate voted 22-14 in favor of a bill without the caps. The margin was insufficient to override a veto.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin Sullivan (D-West Hartford) said the massive bill might not be the perfect solution to Connecticut's problem of rising rates, but it is a good start. Senate Minority Leader Louis DeLuca (R-Woodbury) said the bill is well-intentioned but won't help struggling doctors.
"Without some kind of cap on malpractice settlements, I don't think it's going to do much good," he said.
The House of Representatives approved the same measure last week and fended off an amendment to cap medical malpractice jury awards.
The Connecticut Medical Society was dismayed by the House vote and has complained that the underlying bill would not reduce physicians' soaring insurance premiums. Physicians across the state lobbied for months in favor of caps on noneconomic damages.
In the House last week, lawmakers defeated a $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages per physician per claim and a $650,000 cap on damages on hospitals. In cases of gross, willful or wanton misconduct, the noneconomic damages would have been tripled.
"The rates are going to go up. The number of physicians who are going to go out of practice, retire and go out of state is going to increase," said Seyed Aleali, M.D., president of the state medical society.
Meanwhile, in Nashville, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a drunken driver injured in an auto accident doesn't bear any fault for negligent medical treatment that followed.
The court decided 4-1 to reverse its 1996 ruling that established "comparative fault" in medical malpractice cases. Comparative fault allowed juries to apportion responsibility between a patient who acts negligently in causing his initial injury and a physician who acts negligently in treating the injury.
The court ruling, released Monday, ordered Vanderbilt University Medical Center to pay damages of $7.4 million to Larry Qualls of Perry County, Tenn. A jury originally decided that Vanderbilt was 70% at fault and liable for $5.2 million in damages.
Qualls was treated at Vanderbilt after a 1998 single-car accident. Authorities estimated his blood alcohol level was 0.20%, twice the law's definition of drunken driving.
Qualls was given large doses of drugs to calm agitation that doctors attributed to alcohol withdrawal. While on a ventilator for tests four days after his admission, Qualls stopped breathing. He suffered serious brain damage and now is in a vegetative state in a nursing home, the opinion said.
A lawsuit filed on Qualls' behalf contended an oxygen tank ran dry. Vanderbilt conceded that a nurse violated standards of care during the tests but argued that Qualls' alcohol withdrawal created a seizure that led to his brain injury.
The supreme court cited decisions in other states in overturning the concept of comparative fault in medical malpractice. "Most jurisdictions have held that a patient's negligence that provides only the occasion for medical treatment may not be compared to that of a negligent physician," Justice Janice Holder wrote in the court's opinion.