Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the House bill sponsor, said the reforms are needed to scale back the use of defensive medicine and attract quality physicians.
"I bring this bill not to limit access to courts, not to limit remedies, but to make sure that Florida is a place that is fair in the litigation process for physicians, he said.
Gaetzs bill would limit lawsuits by tightening the standards for expert witnesses and make it harder to prove negligence when doctors are charged with failing to order proper diagnostic tests. But the most controversial provision would shield hospitals from liability if doctors hired as independent contractors are accused of negligence.
Opponents warn the bill will hurt patients because it will encourage hospitals to sign contracts with independent doctors to escape liability.
"To further insulate hospitals or doctors in this bill doesnt sit well with me, said Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary. He said his sister died at age 24 because of what his family considered medical malpractice. "Its an already very, very difficult and very regulated area of the law for justice to be served."
Gaetz acknowledged that because state law allows doctors to go without insurance, victims could not recover damages because it would be like being injured by a poor person. But if the hospital didnt cause the injury, he argued, one should not be able to sue them just because they happen to have assets.
The Florida Justice Association, which represents trial lawyers, also questions the need for the proposed reforms. They say that in the last 10 years, medical malpractice insurance costs have dropped, the number of doctors practicing in Florida has risen by 30 percent, and lawsuits are down 50 percent.
Are we fixing a problem that doesnt exist? asked Grant Kuvin, a lawyer from Morgan and Morgan in Orlando. What we should be looking at is holding caregivers more accountable to keep premiums down.
Bob White, president of First Professional Insurance Company, the states largest medical liability insurer, acknowledged that in the last six years, the cost of medical liability insurance in Florida dropped 36 percent.
It has been the most profitable period in the history of our industry, because no one anticipated the drop in claims frequency, he told the Herald/Times last week.
White, however, said rates still remain higher in Florida than the national average because doctors face a higher frequency of lawsuits compared to other states.
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, has filed a bill similar to Gaetzs. The House subcommittee also approved HB 869 by Rep. Bill Hagar, R-Boca Raton. It would shield nursing home investors from being sued for damages. Opponents say the bill will encourage the trend because nursing homes owners and directors are increasingly restructuring their ownership arrangements to avoid liability.
For Lawley, who believes negligence killed his daughter, the bills will shut off access to the courts for people like me.
Im here, not because of sadness, he told the subcommittee. Im here because I believe the citizens of Florida should have a right to justice Without access to the courts, I cant get to the truth.