ATLANTA — A state Senate committee adopted an ambitious set of recommendations Tuesday aimed at curbing jury awards in medical malpractice, personal injury and product liability lawsuits.
Named after its ultimate goal, the Reducing Georgia’s Cost of Doing Business Study Committee embraced a series of tort reform proposals, including capping punitive damage awards, long sought by business groups and their Republican allies in the General Assembly.
The GOP-controlled legislature passed a tort-reform bill back in 2005. But the Georgia Supreme Court subsequently struck down as unconstitutional its key provision capping non-economic awards in medical malpractice cases at $350,000.
Supporters of tort reform cite a flurry of large jury awards in recent years they say are hurting the state’s business climate. However, significant reform legislation has yet to make it through the General Assembly.
Opponents, led by advocates for trial lawyers, say the proposed reforms would take away the legal rights of victims of medical malpractice, car crashes or faulty products to have their cases heard in court.
Besides the cap on punitive damages, key recommendations the study committee approved Tuesday included proposals to:
♦ Allow defense lawyers in personal injury cases to introduce into evidence whether an injured motorist was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash;
♦ Prohibit plaintiffs from seeking “phantom damages,” compensatory damages beyond what a plaintiff will actually pay for medical care or treatment;
♦ Make it harder to find home- or business owners negligent for injuries victims suffer from crimes committed by criminals trespassing without the property owner’s knowledge;
♦ Prohibit defense lawyers from suggesting specific damage awards to juries.
Personal injury lawyer Gino Brogdon, a member of the study committee, objected to a number of the panel’s proposals and was the lone “no” vote on many of its 19 recommendations, including seat belt admissibility and phantom damages. He also voted against capping punitive damages along with Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur.
On premises liability, Brogdon objected to shielding property owners from liability for negligence unless they have committed an overt act.
“People who ignore criminal activity and don’t make security arrangements are committing an overt act,” he said.
But Dr. Andrew Reisman, another committee member, said current law makes it too easy to sue a property owner over a crime that occurs on their premises by a trespasser.
“The only way property owners can protect themselves is to put up a 12-foot barbed wire fence around their home or business,” he said.
Committee members added two proposals Tuesday to the 17 recommendations they took up at the beginning of the meeting, including a suggestion that the General Assembly consider setting caps on plaintiff lawyers’ contingency fees.
The panel stopped short of recommending specific maximum percentages of awards lawyers could claim, based on the dollar amount of the award.