Politics & Government

Suing someone who hurts you would be harder under these Republican-backed bills

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Suing someone who hurts you or kills a loved one would get harder under two Republican-backed bills that advanced Wednesday in the Kentucky Senate.

Senate Bill 2, a proposed constitutional amendment, would let the General Assembly limit the damages that juries can award in personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits. The legislature also could set a deadline on plaintiffs intending to sue in such cases, after which their claims would expire.

Senate Bill 20 would set a broad range of restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits against doctors, hospitals and nursing homes. Among the hurdles: Plaintiffs would have to submit an “affidavit of merit” from an “expert witness” vouching for each claim before their suit could begin; plaintiffs’ attorneys would have their fees capped; and costs would be imposed for the production of patients’ medical records.

State Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, is sponsoring both bills, which were approved by separate Senate committees on Wednesday and sent to the full Republican-led Senate for further action.

Alvarado, who is a doctor, said it’s unfair that doctors and businesses in Kentucky face “unlimited risk” at the hands of juries deciding how much plaintiffs are entitled to receive. There must be limits, he said.

“Whether you’re a physician or a business owner, you face one constant: Unlimited risk every day you go to work,” Alvarado told the Senate State and Local Government Committee as he testified for SB 2. “And with that risk comes the undeniable fact that you are one real or perceived accident or mistake away from watching everything that you have worked for your entire life get taken away by a single jury decision.”

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce endorses SB 2. Dave Adkisson, the chamber’s president, told senators that Kentucky is ranked 42nd in the nation for its “uncertain legal liability” climate because other states have acted more aggressively to shield their businesses from lawsuits.

“This legislation is about making Kentucky a better place to do business,” Adkisson said.

However, state Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, challenged Adkisson by saying that neither he nor Alvarado had shown the senators any data about liability insurance costs for Kentucky businesses or given any examples of excessive jury awards.

McGarvey, a lawyer, said large trial awards are usually the result of juries disgusted by evidence of extremely bad conduct, such as children hurt or killed because of someone’s deliberate indifference.

“You’ve testified in front of us today about the businesses that need this for their insurance,” McGarvey said to Adkisson. “When those families are in those hospitals and funeral homes, will you go testify in front of them and tell them that the reason we need this is because businesses didn’t want to risk a lawsuit?”

“You’ve editorialized eloquently,” Adkisson replied. “But I would stand by everything that I’ve said, that this is a significant barrier to economic growth.”

Alvarado said his other bill, SB 20, is meant to be a companion to legislation he sponsored last year that was signed into law establishing medical-review panels. The panels, composed of three medical providers, were supposed to review medical malpractice suits and render an expert opinion on their merit before the suits could proceed in court.

However, in October, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd struck down the law as an unconstitutional violation of Kentuckians’ right to have free access to the courts. The Kentucky Supreme Court has agreed to hear the state’s appeal of the suit challenging that law, although no hearings have been scheduled yet.

Eighty-five malpractice plaintiffs had applied for the creation of a review panel by the time of Shepherd’s decision, but no panel had issued a decision, according to court records.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics