Med-Mal DOA in Legislature but E-Discovery, Civil Forfeiture and Guns Have a Chance
Bills on e-discovery, civil forfeiture are poised for consideration
Legislation that would replace Georgia's medical malpractice tort system with a worker's compensation-like board appears to be dead on arrival this session, but bills regulating e-discovery and civil forfeiture and relaxing concealed carry restrictions are poised for consideration during the 2014 session that begins today.
Legislators have predicted a quick session because they face primaries two months earlier this year, in May, due to a federal court decision regarding absentee ballot deadlines. Lawmakers' first priority will be deciding on a budget for 2015, which the General Assembly is constitutionally obligated to do.
In a legislative forum hosted Thursday by the State Bar of Georgia during its midyear meeting in Atlanta, the mention of the med-mal bill drew snickers from the audience and the five lawmakers sitting on the panel.
Senate Bill 141, which is backed by a coalition of health-care providers and administrators known as Patients for Fair Compensation, has been the subject of numerous, contentious hearings in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee since it was filed last session. Backers of the bill say the current tort system is flawed because it blocks injured patients with legitimate but low-value claims from receiving compensation and that a worker's compensation type system would be fairer and more efficient. Among the bill's biggest opponents are the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and the Medical Association of Georgia, which contend it would unconstitutionally deny injured patients the right to trial by jury and prove to be overly bureaucratic and costly.
Sen. Charlie Bethel, a Republican lawyer from Dalton and one of the governor's floor leaders, said he would be surprised if the bill made it to the Senate floor for a debate and vote this session.
"But it's not going away because the problems it seeks to address aren't either," Bethel said. He said the bill is the wrong solution to a real and "natural problem" stemming from the current system—"that is the idea that our tort system from a public perception standpoint is imbalanced. Whether we agree with that or not, it's a problem legislators are going to try to solve because they are elected by the public."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Josh McKoon, a Republican lawyer from Columbus, called the bill "ill-conceived."
McKoon said that while state senators are each limited to 30 minutes of floor debate time per bill, he will use all of his time to speak out against the bill. "I've been working on lots of amendments as well," he said. "I will certainly do everything I can to see that piece of legislation is defeated."
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who is a lawyer, was not at the forum. Ralston said at a press conference on Thursday that SB 141 had a slim chance of passage in his chamber.
Another controversial bill that didn't pass last session but faces better chances this session is Senate Bill 101, which would allow concealed carry of firearms on college campuses and some other places where they now are prohibited. The Legislature hotly debated that bill and other similar ones last session, and ultimately dropped a provision that would have allowed concealed carry in courthouses after judges expressed great concern.