TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida lawmakers appear to be inching closer on changes to the state's medical-malpractice system, with a House committee Tuesday scrapping proposals that likely would have run into opposition in the Senate.
The House Judiciary Committee scaled back a bill (HB 827) that earlier included proposals such as shielding hospitals from liability if negligence is caused by physicians who work at the hospitals as independent contractors. Senate Judiciary Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said last month that such proposals "went too far."
The House measure still has differences with the Senate medical-malpractice bill (SB 1792), which could be heard on the Senate floor Wednesday. But House sponsor Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, expressed confidence that the two chambers will come to an agreement.
"We're sending the governor a medical-malpractice litigation reform bill,'' said Gaetz, whose father is Senate President Don Gaetz. "Doctors are too important."
Medical malpractice is the subject of an almost-perennial lobbying fight, with doctors, hospitals and other groups pushing bills to curb lawsuits --- and plaintiffs' attorneys fighting back to try to prevent changes that they say would harm the legal rights of malpractice victims.
Whatever might pass this year likely will involve somewhat-esoteric legal changes, rather than dramatic steps such as trying to cap damage amounts.
As an example, both the House and Senate bills would make a change that deals with physicians who are not parties to medical-malpractice lawsuits but treat the patients in those cases.
The bills would allow defense attorneys 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.
Gaetz said allowing such conversations could help get cases settled sooner. But critics say, in part, the interviews could violate privacy rights that are involved in doctor-patient relationships.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 12-6 to approve the scaled-back bill, which is now prepared to go to the full House. But the biggest fight during the meeting came on an amendment that dealt with expert witnesses in malpractice cases.
The bill called for limiting expert witnesses to doctors who have the same specialties as the defendants in malpractice lawsuits. That would be more-restrictive than current law, which allows expert witnesses who have the same specialties or similar specialties.
Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said the more-restrictive requirement would shrink the pool of experts who could testify against physicians.
"It's just an artificial kind of distinction to say that it must be same exact area,'' said Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood.
But Rep. Larry Metz, a Yalaha Republican who supported the additional restriction, said current law is "too loose" and that experts within the same specialties can be found to testify.
"I don't want to have a dermatologist testifying against an oncologist,'' said Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who also supported the restriction.
Committee members, however, voted 10-8 to approve an amendment eliminating the same-specialty requirement. The Senate bill includes the restriction, though a proposed amendment has been filed to try to eliminate it.
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