Initiative would seek malpractice-suit caps

By Carol M. Ostrom
Seattle Times staff reporter

June 15, 2004

Saying an unfair legal system and malpractice-insurance costs are threatening doctors' livelihoods, a group called Doctors for Sensible Lawsuit Reform says it will file an initiative to the state Legislature to try to force elected officials to limit awards in malpractice lawsuits.
Doctors, through the Washington State Medical Association, have failed in attempts to persuade legislators to pass measures capping payouts on lawsuits. They've been blocked the past two legislative sessions by Democratic leaders who say the complex problem won't yield to a single fix.

Democrats have argued that capping noneconomic damages would discriminate against certain patients, particularly women and the elderly who may not receive much for economic losses. Noneconomic damages compensate for pain and suffering, while economic damages cover lost wages and other costs.

In a statement released yesterday, the initiative sponsors said doctors were "frustrated by the lack of action to pass meaningful liability reform" and hoped the initiative would break the "gridlock in Olympia."

The group has until Dec. 31 to gather 197,734 signatures from registered Washington voters. If it succeeds, the initiative will go to the Legislature, which, by law, would have three choices:

It could adopt the initiative as proposed. If that happens, the initiative would become law without being sent to the ballot.

It could reject or take no action on the proposal. If the Legislature did that, the initiative would go onto the ballot in the fall of 2005.

It could approve an alternative version of the proposal. In that case, both the original measure and the alternative would go on the fall 2005 ballot.

The group plans to announce details of the initiative Thursday.

Preliminary indications were that it would deal strictly with medical-malpractice-lawsuit issues and would impose a sliding scale of caps for noneconomic damages in lawsuits.

People familiar with the initiative said it would be similar to legislation passed by the state Senate in the last session that would have enacted caps of $350,000 for such damages.

It was not immediately clear how an initiative would deal with a particular sticking point in Washington: According to a 1988 ruling by the state Supreme Court, the state's constitution would have to be amended before the Legislature could limit jury awards.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company



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