North Carolina Gov. Perdue Vetoes Malpractice Cap, OKs Work Comp Bill

By | June 27, 2011

North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed another bill Friday pushed by the Republican majority at the Legislature, this time changes to rules governing medical malpractice cases that would have capped certain monetary awards for negligence victims.

Perdue, a Democrat, blocked a bill from taking effect that would have limited awards for malpractice victims to $500,000 for things such as pain, suffering and emotional distress. Perdue suggested in her veto message that she would sign into law an amended package if lawmakers developed one when they convene next month.

Perdue spokesman Mark Johnson said separately the governor had problems with the cap in the current bill.

“I commend the Legislature for addressing this important issue but, in its current form, the bill is unbalanced,” Perdue said in a written statement. “I urge legislators to modify the bill when the General Assembly returns in July to protect those who are catastrophically injured.”

The veto is a victory for the state’s trial lawyers and patients who opposed vigorously any cap on what’s called “non-economic” damages — those unrelated to medical bills and compensation for lost wages or income — and a setback for the state’s business community and doctors. For years, they have been seeking limits they say would curtail out-of-control malpractice insurance premiums.

Such a cap had been avoided by Democrats when they were in control of the General Assembly in part because the state trial lawyers’ association opposed the idea. Leaders of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice have been historically aligned primarily with Democratic interests.

The climate changed when the GOP took charge of both legislative chambers for the first time in 140 years last November. Republican leaders also saw the measure as an economic development tool by attracting doctors to set up shop in North Carolina because of favorable liability laws.

The future of an override vote on this bill is unclear when the Legislature begins work again July 13.

The Senate passed the bill by a wide margin, but the House passed the measure by a vote of 62-44, short of the majority that would signal the chamber’s ability to cancel Perdue’s veto. The House vote wasn’t exclusively partisan _ 11 Democrats and 11 Republicans voted contrary to the majority in their respective parties on the final compromise.

The North Carolina Medical Society and North Carolina Hospital Association said in a joint statement they want lawmakers to override Perdue’s veto, saying the bill already was a careful compromise.

“The governor does not get the last word on medical liability reform,” N.C. Medical Society chief executive officer Bob Seligson said, adding the “General Assembly developed a strong bipartisan bill that will reduce health care costs, protect patients and encourage job growth.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, called the veto “a severe blow to the state’s medical community and every citizen struggling to cope with the skyrocketing cost of health care.”

The bill would have placed no limits on non-economic cash damages for victims who suffered serious permanent injury, lost a limb or died if jurors determined the doctor or hospital involved was grossly negligent or acted “in reckless disregard of the rights of others.” Trial attorneys and patients said the threshold was too steep. A House version of the bill would have removed the limit completely in these situations.

“The final version denies justice to injured persons,” said Dick Taylor, chief executive for the N.C. Advocates for Justice. “We applaud the governor for vetoing this bill. If it comes up again, we hope the House will fix it one more time.”

The bill also requires a higher standard of proof of malpractice for doctors and hospitals treating patients with emergency conditions as compared to other situations.

More than 30 states have a limit or cap on damages in medical liability cases, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Carolina already has a cap on punitive damages equal to the greater of $250,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages.

Perdue did sign into law Friday a companion liability reform bill as well as changes to rules governing workers’ compensation benefits, calling them fair and balancing properly the rights of the injured with protections for companies. Both received overwhelming support. The liability measure gained votes when a provision was deleted that otherwise would have given broad product protections for pharmaceutical companies.

Perdue, who has been whittling down more than 200 bills left on her desk by the General Assembly before leaving Raleigh last weekend, acknowledged something needs to be done to curb medical malpractice insurance rates.

“I am strongly committed to passing meaningful medical malpractice reform,” she said.

The Advocates for Justice undertook a lobbying campaign this year to oppose a medical malpractice bill with a cap through running television ads and sending mailers to constituents of key legislators. Stories of patients harmed by medical mistakes were highlighted. Past chief justices of the state Supreme Court took opposing views in open letters to the constitutionality of a limit on non-economic damages.

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