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House Nears Final Vote on GOP Bill to Limit Punitive Damages

March 10, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House is nearing final passage of Republican legislation to limit punitive damage awards in civil suits, after giving the nation’s doctors and drug companies long-sought victories.

The Republican-controlled House voted Thursday night to limit pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice cases to $250,000.

On a 247-171 vote, lawmakers voted to include the limit as part of a broader bill to impose a nationwide ceiling on punitive damages in all state and federal civil suits, including product liability cases. That ceiling also is $250,000.

Lawmakers also approved a less controversial provision to prohibit courts from awarding punitive damages against the makers of drugs or medical devices approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The amendment had the support of lawmakers from both parties and was approved on a voice vote.

Plaintiffs in such drug cases would still be eligible for economic damages as well as so-called non-economic damages, which cover pain and suffering.

Final passage of the overall punitive damages bill was expected today. It is the third in a trio of business-backed bills to overhaul the civil legal system, part of the GOP’s ``Contract With America.″ The bills have been opposed by the nation’s trial lawyers, who are political benefactors of Democratic candidates, as well as by consumer advocates.

One measure adopted narrowly earlier in the week would generally increase pressure on parties to settle lawsuits short of trial, or risk having to pay a portion of the other side’s legal fees.

The second bill, approved overwhelmingly on Wednesday, would make it easier for defendants to prevail in lawsuits by shareholders alleging securities fraud.

Opponents decried the malpractice measure Thursday as a further victimization of patients and their relatives already wronged.

``Medical malpractice causes incredible harm to people,″ Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, said after the vote. ``This is going to have a major impact.″

Supporters hailed the measure as a linchpin in reforming the nation’s health care system and holding down increases in medical costs.

The American Medical Association, which represents thousands of physicians, had lobbied intensively over the last few days to have the ceiling on malpractice damages included in the Republicans’ broader package of legislation to discourage all kinds of lawsuits.

The AMA effort included radio and newspaper advertisements as well as personal contacts with lawmakers.

``I don’t think there’s one House member who hasn’t been called,″ said AMA spokesman Jim Stacy. ``All the stops have been pulled out.″

Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said the measure was patterned after a system in his state, where malpractice premiums are one-third to one-half lower than in states with no ceiling on pain-and-suffering damages.

``If this loses, the chances of meaningful health care reform in this Congress are virtually gone,″ said Rep. William Thomas, another California Republican.

Democrats scoffed.

Someone ``injured and maybe even butchered in surgery″ _ even if the physician was drunk _ would be limited to a non-economic damage award of $250,000, said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

In another development, the federal judiciary’s policy-making Judicial Conference next week will consider a proposal to change court rules to allow greater secrecy in civil cases, including medical malpractice lawsuits.

The punitive damages bill would require a finding of ``clear and convincing evidence″ that a defendant intended to cause harm or was guilty of a ``conscious, flagrant indifference to the safety of others″ before punitive damages could be awarded.

A move by Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to permit states to continue setting their own standards was defeated, 278-150.

The bill also would limit punitive damages in all civil cases to $250,000, or three times the total of economic damages awarded in the same case, whichever is higher. Economic damages are designed to make up for lost wages, medical bills and similar expenses.

An amendment by Rep. Elizabeth Furse, D-Ore., to eliminate the cap was defeated, 272-155.

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