Senators try to rework malpractice suit limits

COLUMBUS, Ga. - Families such as the Fretwells seem to be forgotten in the annual turf war between doctors and lawyers in Georgia's Capitol over who should be protected from malpractice lawsuits.


Like others, Rodney and Sherry Fretwell paid scant attention the state tort reforms approved two years ago.

But they were soon confronted with one of the least-known provisions of the 2005 law, an obscure section that makes it nearly impossible for patients to win medical malpractice lawsuits against emergency room doctors. Now their story, and others, has led Georgia lawmakers to propose retooling the laws and make it easier for alleged malpractice victims to make their case in court.

It started in February of last year, when Mrs. Fretwell insisted her 39-year-old husband go to the Columbus Medical Center's emergency room for a headache that wouldn't go away after four days and numbness on the left side of his body that began to grow.

A doctor told the burly builder that the problem was likely a pulled muscle and sent him home with prescriptions for a muscle relaxer and blood pressure medicine.

Within a few hours, Mr. Fretwell said, his left side was paralyzed. He rushed back to the hospital, but the same physician told him again that he suspected a pulled muscle and sent Mr. Fretwell home.

The next morning, he was back - this time, by ambulance. His vision had blurred and his vomiting grew worse overnight. After tests, doctors confirmed he had suffered a stroke.

A month later, the family sought out a lawyer. They were told that if the doctors had originally diagnosed a stroke, they could have treated him with medication to reduce its severity. But the lawyers also said the new law gives emergency room almost complete immunity from malpractice suits, making a lawsuit a long shot.

That could soon change.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, say they fear the provision goes too far.

They back a measure that would scrap language requiring patients to prove emergency room doctors acted with "gross negligence" in malpractice cases, a standard that forces lawyers to prove they knowingly mistreated the patients.

The legislation's opponents include the Medical Association of Georgia, the doctors group that was a key supporter of the tort reforms, which include a $350,000 cap on pain and suffering damages and new incentives for patients to settle out of court.

The group's opposition to the changes is giving the proposal's supporters fits. Republican Sen. Seth Harp, the bill's sponsor, has taken to calling the measure "the physician's protection bill" to smooth over legislators who fear butting heads with the medical association.

He says the "gross negligent" standard is so fuzzy that malpractice insurers are refusing to cover some ER doctors.

The legislation faces a series of hurdles before it reaches a vote, which is why Mr. Fretwell wants legislators to know his story.

After six weeks of bed rest, his awning construction business was in shambles. After the business went under, he lost his house and filed for bankruptcy to avoid $40,000 in hospital bills.

The family is now renting a house in Columbus His right arm still tingles, and parts of his right side are extremely sensitive. He seems resigned that his lawsuit may not have a chance. But he hopes one day that another could.

The Legislation

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- Associated Press