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Utah Legislature: Malpractice awards could get capped

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill capping malpractice lawsuit awards — a step deemed vital to bringing health care costs under control but a proposal that several lawmakers thought they would never see ?— was approved by a Senate committee Friday.

Some language in SB145 still has to be hammered out, and its path to the committee has already been circuitous. The bill has been rewritten and fixed more than a dozen times since it was made public Feb. 4. It was amended in committee before members passed it through to the Senate floor, and the House hasn't even touched it yet. The current version would lower the lawsuit awards ceiling to $250,000 from $480,000.

"I am absolutely astounded that you have gotten this close," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden. "I predicted that you would never get there."

Similar measures have been proposed in previous sessions, and they were fought tooth and nail by both medical practitioners and prosecuting attorneys.

The bill's sponsor said drafting has been difficult and done and redone because it's complicated and because a bigger question of who gets access to justice — a constant conundrum of the courts system — factors heavily in whatever bill is finally approved.

Attorney Charlie Thronsen, speaking for trial attorneys, said access is a complicating factor in determining whether a case should move to court. "And it's difficult to find a balance of fairness to victims and (health care) providers," he said.

An estimated 100 malpractice cases are in the court system in Utah on any given day.

Opponents of the bill have said that consumers, who already get the short end of the stick under current malpractice statutes even when they make it to court, are the only group within health care being penalized under the bill. That means not only do they rarely win a malpractice case, they are held back to a dollar amount, no matter how egregious the injury and no matter how long-term or how severe the injury becomes in the years that follow.

Committee members said the bill can't really answer the bigger questions, but the one thing it can do is limit jury amounts in the hope of improving health care for more people, as well has reducing health care related spending.

The bill may be read online at le.utah.gov/~2010/htmdoc/sbillhtm/SB0145.htm.

e-mail: jthalman@desnews.com