A Senate committee began moving forward with changes to Florida’s medical-malpractice laws — but its chairman said the Senate will not go along with House proposals that are more far-reaching, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-3, along party lines, to approve a bill (SPB 7030) that includes tightening restrictions on expert witnesses in medical-malpractice cases and making a controversial change related to interviewing other potential witnesses. Those ideas are backed by physicians and medical groups.
But Judiciary Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he thinks other proposals in a House bill are dead in the Senate. As an example, the House bill (HB 827) would shield hospitals from liability if negligence is caused by physicians who work as independent contractors at the facilities.
“They went too far,” Lee said. “Those issues went too far.”
The Senate and House bills have refueled a long-running lobbying battle between medical groups and trial attorneys who represent injured patients. While the Senate proposal is more modest than the House version, that battle was on full display during the Judiciary Committee meeting Monday.
Part of the Senate bill, for instance, would place additional limits on which doctors can serve as expert witnesses in medical-malpractice cases. When a specialist is a defendant, experts would be limited to other doctors who practice in the same specialty —a tighter restriction than current law, which allows testimony from physicians in similar specialties.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys say they already can have difficulty finding doctors to testify against each other. Orlando trial attorney Scott Bates said the Senate bill would further reduce the number of available witnesses.
“This is clearly an attempt to further bar the door to the courthouse for victims of medical malpractice,” Bates said.
But Thomas Dukes, an Orlando defense attorney in medical-malpractice cases, said the current law leads to confusion about who can testify and can create situations where testimony is misleading. He also questioned whether the new restriction would prevent plaintiffs’ attorneys from finding witnesses.
“It’s a big country, and there are a lot of folks willing to testify on both sides,” he said.
The other controversial issue in the Senate bill deals with physicians who are not parties to medical-malpractice lawsuits but treat the plaintiffs in those cases. The bill would allow defense attorneys to have what are known as “ex parte communications” with those treating physicians to try to get information. Such interviews would be outside the presence of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Lee said allowing such interviews would give defense attorneys access to information that they might not hear until later in the case, after a lot of time and money is spent. He said that information could help defense attorneys make better decisions about whether to settle or proceed with cases.
But critics said the interviews could be used to intimidate treating physicians, who might be witnesses in the lawsuits. Also, opponents such as Sen. Jeremy Ring said they have privacy concerns about unrelated patient information being divulged during the interviews.