Senate OKs lawsuit reform

The Olympian



How local lawmakers voted:

How they voted
The Senate, on a 28-21 vote Friday, approved Senate Bill 5728, a sweeping measure to limit various types of lawsuits. Voting yes were 24 Republicans and 4 Democrats. Voting no were 1 Republican and 20 Democrats.

- Voting yes: Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

- Voting no: Karen Fraser, D-Olympia.

At a glance

Olympia, WA - Major elements of Senate Bill 5728, an omnibus bill limiting various types of lawsuits:

- Joint and several liability: Limits how much a deep-pocketed defendant can be required to pay for an injury. Under current law, a defendant who bears even a small amount of fault can be required to pay the entire legal judgment. The bill would limit such liability to twice the amount of fault found by a jury.

- Malpractice damages: Caps damages for pain, suffering and other noneconomic harm at $350,000 in medical malpractice cases. Current law has no limit. The cap wouldn't limit economic damages, such as medical costs or lost earnings. A similar cap imposed by lawmakers in 1986 was struck down.

- Malpractice time limits: Most malpractice lawsuits must be filed within three years of the alleged medical error. Current law allows such lawsuits within a year of the discovery of the injury.

- Government liability: Caps liability of state and local governments at $1 million for non-economic damages, except in cases of paroled murderers or rapists who commit murder or rape. Larger judgments would go to the Legislature or to local legislative bodies.

- Seat belts: Allows juries to hear evidence about whether someone injured in a vehicle crash was wearing a seat belt. Current law forbids such disclosure.

- Employment references: Gives employers who give information about employees to other prospective employers immunity from civil liability unless a claimant can prove the information was knowingly false or deliberately misleading.

- Construction: Creates new defenses against claims arising from construction, repair and remodeling of real property. The defenses include unforeseen acts of nature, a homeowner's failure to minimize or prevent damage, and damage caused by the homeowner's ordinary wear and tear, misuse, abuse or neglect.

The Senate voted Friday for a sweeping package of limits on lawsuits that would protect doctors, governments, builders and big corporations in various legal actions.
Senate Bill 5728 caps damages for pain, suffering and other noneconomic harm in medical malpractice cases, a big priority of the state's doctors, who argue that big jury awards and skyrocketing malpractice insurance are driving them out of business.

The lawsuit bill comes on the coattails of the Senate's approval of SB 5209 late Thursday night, which would limit jury awards for pain, suffering and other noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases.

"I'm here because of the doctors," said Sen. Dale Brandland, R-Bellingham, rebuffing criticisms that the lawsuit bill would limit the rights of innocent victims. "That's not the door of the courthouse closing, that's the doctors' office closing."

Opponents blasted the bill, saying it does more for insurance companies than doctors squeezed by low reimbursement rates from Medicaid and private insurers.

Sen. Adam Kline, a trial lawyer by profession, defended his colleagues and the jury system and said the bill would hurt thousands of future victims.

"Our work is fairness, our work is to pursue justice," said Kline, D-Seattle. "They're not here to defend themselves, and yet it is their rights that we are withdrawing at the requests of the insurance industry."

But the bill passed 28-21.

The bill now goes to the House, along with the bill passed late Thursday night that deals only with medical malpractice.

"This series of bills is like shooting over Scud missiles," said Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner. "Shoom! And then they fizzle."


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