Hospital Malpractice

Last week, a House subcommittee approved two bills that will drastically change the inner workings of medical malpractice lawsuits, according to the Miami Herald. With short notice given for these bills, HB 827 and HB 869, it seems that the committee is very interested in seeing these pass. Although the HB 827 sponsor said he hopes these changes in the medical malpractice legal system will help Florida attract high-quality physicians and lower costs, opponents warn that the bill will hurt patients because it will encourage hospitals to sign contracts with independent doctors to escape liability.

Sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, HB 827 would increase the burden of proof from “greater weight of evidence” to “clear and convincing,” a much tougher standard in the justice system. The bill also toughens standards for expert witnesses and makes it harder to prove negligence when doctors face allegations that they failed to order extra diagnostic tests. A key proposal in the bill shields hospitals from liability if negligence is caused by physicians who are independent contractors.

The House subcommittee also approved another bill sponsored by Senator John Thrasher that shields nursing home investors from being sued for damages. Known as HB 869, supporters such as the Florida Health Care Association argue that the bill will “strike a balance” for nursing homes in the legal arena by protecting investors who don’t have a role in care giving from litigation. Opponents, however, note that the bill encourages the trend of nursing home owners and directors that consistently restructure their ownership arrangements to avoid liability.

Groups such as The Florida Justice Association oppose the bills and stand behind malpractice victims. The Republican-controlled House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted 9-4 along party lines to approve the bill after hearing testimony from two parents whose children died and a woman who was blinded from medical malpractice.

Although at least four medical malpractice bills have been filed in the Senate that include medical malpractice changes, the House bill will go to the Judiciary Committee before moving to the full House. Gaetz claims that the reforms are needed to scale back the use of defensive medicine, attract quality physicians, and reduce insurance costs. Yet the Florida Justice Association says that in the last 10 years, medical malpractice insurance costs have dropped, the number of doctors practicing in Florida has risen by 30 percent, and lawsuits are down 50 percent.

Several subcommittee members said that the testimony from the victims is heartbreaking, but they continue to support the bill, as they believe the system will still compensate victims for wrongful acts. Michael Lawley, the father of 31-year-old Shannon who died after suffering irreversible brain damage and a series of errors at a Brevard hospital, believes that the bills will shut off access to the courts for people like him: “Justice isn’t about money. This is about finding the truth, and holding people accountable for their actions. If there is no accountability, you’ll never have responsibility.”

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