Shield for Doctors’ Apologies Clears Ariz. Senate

By | February 25, 2005

A bill approved Tuesday by the Senate would let doctors apologize and offer condolences to patients and their families without fear of having the statements held against them in court.

The so-called “I’m sorry” provision is part of a medical malpractice bill approved by the Senate one day after lawmakers shelved a more controversial proposal to cap damage awards in medical malpractice cases.

Other provisions would tighten requirements for the credentials of expert witnesses testifying in court and make it easier for insurance defense lawyers to question health-care providers and see records.

“We have to make Arizona a more physician-friendly state when it comes to malpractice (lawsuits),” said Sen. Robert Cannell, a Yuma Democrat who is a pediatrician.

The bill, approved 19-10 by the Senate and sent to the House, is supported by physicians, hospitals and business lobbies. The Arizona Trial Lawyers Association opposes it.

Arizona is among at least 10 states considering medical malpractice legislation this year. Meanwhile, President Bush wants Congress to approve a nationwide ceiling on medical malpractice awards for pain and suffering.

Last November, voters in four states decided ballot measures on medical malpractice. Wyoming and Oregon voters rejected doctor-backed proposals to implement caps on awards while Nevada voters approved a cap. Florida voters backed limits on attorneys’ fees but also supported measures to give the public more information about doctors’ mistakes and to revoke the licenses of doctors who make repeated medical errors.

The “I’m sorry” provision of the Arizona bill would mean doctors’ apologies and offers of condolences couldn’t be used against them in malpractice cases.

Doctors say encouraging such statements help doctor-patient relationships and could make patients less likely to sue, and trial attorneys didn’t oppose that part of the bill.

Colorado and Wyoming have similar laws.

The expert-witness provision would require that an expert witness called by a medical-malpractice plaintiff be a licensed professional and have the same specialty as the physician named in the lawsuit if that physician is a specialist. It also requires that expert witnesses have devoted most of their time to practicing or teaching medicine.

Bill supporters say those requirements would mean that experts would be truly familiar with medical practices they’re critiquing. Opponents say the restrictions will make it harder for plaintiffs to find physicians willing to testify on behalf of plaintiffs.

The final provision would replace formal depositions with informal interviews in which health care providers could provide information to defendants’ attorneys. However, patients still would have to be notified and their attorneys permitted to monitor the interview.

Sen. Bill Brotherton, a Phoenix Democrat who is a trial attorney, criticized the bill, saying at least some provisions would apply to other death or injury lawsuits, not just medical malpractice claims.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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