TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

With doctors seeking greater legal protections, the Florida Senate on Thursday approved a plan that includes tightening restrictions on expert witnesses in medical-malpractice cases.

Senators voted 27-12 for the measure (SB 1792), which now goes to the House. Groups such as the Florida Medical Association have made the bill a priority, squaring off in a lobbying fight with attorneys who represent injured patients.

"This is a giant step forward in bringing fairness to the Sunshine State?s tort system,'' FMA Executive Vice President Timothy Stapleton said in a prepared statement after the Senate vote.

The bill does not include sweeping changes in malpractice laws but focuses on how cases are litigated. Perhaps the biggest change in the bill would require that expert witnesses in malpractice cases have the same specialties as the doctors who are defendants. Current law allows expert witnesses to have similar specialties.

Plaintiffs' attorneys contend that such a change would shrink the pool of expert witnesses and make it harder for injured people to pursue malpractice cases. The House Judiciary Committee this week eliminated the tougher expert-witness restriction from the House bill (HB 827).

That could spur a debate when the Senate bill reaches the House.

"The Florida Justice Association is disappointed with the Senate bill, but we hope the House will stand by the Judiciary Committee's decision to leave Florida's strong expert witness law intact,'' said Debra Henley, executive director of the association, which represents plaintiffs' attorneys.

But Senate sponsor Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said the current system can lead to "voodoo" testimony in some cases from doctors who don't know about the medical fields involved in the cases.

"It (the bill) in no way inhibits people's access to the court system if they have a meritorious claim,'' Lee said.

Doctors and plaintiffs' lawyers have repeatedly battled in the past about malpractice laws. Doctors say excessive lawsuits drive up insurance costs, while plaintiffs' attorneys say more restrictions on lawsuits would harm malpractice victims and enrich insurers.

The Senate on Wednesday approved a compromise amendment that helped clear the way for the malpractice bill to pass. That amendment dealt with physicians who are not parties to medical-malpractice lawsuits but treat the patients in those cases.

The controversy centered on whether defense attorneys should be allowed to have what are known as "ex parte communications" with those treating physicians to try to get information. Such interviews would be outside the presence of the plaintiffs' attorneys. The amendment, in part, required defense attorneys to give notice in advance of attempting to talk with treating physicians.