Nationally, more than 30 states have a limit or cap on damages in medical liability cases, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Senate Bill 33, Medical Liability Reforms Act, would allow North Carolina to join these states, limiting non-economic damages to an initial $500,000 raised annually for inflation. Non-economic damages include damages like pain and suffering, emotional distress, and other damages difficult to quantify.
North Carolina already has a cap on punitive damages equal to the greater of $250,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages. The bill would not place a cap on compensatory damages, which are damages that place the plaintiff in the position he would have been in had the tort not have been committed.
One area of the bill which has caused the most confusion is the emergency care provision. Some North Carolinians have been led to believe by special interest groups that emergency care doctors have complete immunity and cannot be held liable for tortious acts. However, this is not the case. Emergency health care providers will be liable if the decision-maker (judge or jury) finds by the greater weight of the evidence that the provider’s care deviated from the same standard of care exercised by a provider in the same health profession with similar training and experience, situated in a similar community, and under similar circumstances.
In other words, emergency care doctors will be held under the same duty of care standard as another emergency care doctor. The physician will not be found liable unless the deviation from the standard of care constituted gross negligence, wanton conduct, or intentional wrongdoing.
This provision seems reasonable and fair. Emergency room doctors often have to make split-second decisions. By holding them to a heightened level of care, it enables them to do their job more effectively, making those quick decisions in the best interest of the patient while keeping medical malpractice and health insurance costs at a reasonable level. Furthermore, they can be fined $50,000 by the federal government for failing to treat a patient, providing an additional incentive to conduct their services in a professional and prudent manner.
There have been several attempts at tort reform in past years but the Democrat controlled majority has always blocked any progress. With a Republican majority now in place, tort reform has a greater chance of becoming a reality this session. Senate Bill 33 passed the Senate by a vote of 36-13 with six Democrats joining all Republicans. The measure now heads to the House, which has a special medical liability and tort reform committee.