ATLANTA - Against a backdrop of personal stories and emotional debate, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a sweeping overhaul of laws governing medical malpractice lawsuits Tuesday.
Republicans hailed the bill's approval, on a 39-15 vote, saying it would give the state's doctors relief from the soaring costs of malpractice insurance. Some Democrats bitterly complained that the legislation would devalue human life and cut off some victims' access to courts.
The legislation caps what a jury could award victims for their noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, at $250,000 from each defendant and a total of $750,000. It also tightens requirements for expert witnesses and makes other changes supporters say will weed out frivolous lawsuits and make the state's civil justice system fairer.
Sen. Preston Smith, the Rome Republican who sponsored the bill, said rising insurance premiums were pushing doctors out of their practices. He pointed to incidents throughout the state, including a recent decision by one-third of Athens obstetrician-gynecologists to stop delivering babies.
"This cost is enormous, and it is being borne by our citizens who are seeking access to health care," Mr. Smith said.
He and other supporters were buoyed by a letter from the state's largest malpractice insurer pledging to slash its rates by 10 percent if state courts upheld portions of the law limiting noneconomic damages.
"MAG Mutual believes that comprehensive civil justice reform will have a significant impact on lowering the actuarial cost of providing insurance to cover this risk, and we are committed to passing along those savings to our insureds," wrote Dr. Roy Vandiver, the company's chairman and chief executive.
He estimated the reduced rates would save doctors $20 million a year.
Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, remembered talking to a doctor who recently delivered his new child. The doctor told Mr. Williams that many of his colleagues base medical decisions on which procedures are likely to expose them to a lawsuit.
"Something has gone wrong in our system (when) we are forcing people to practice medicine based on not what's best for you, but what's best for the doctor and the attorney," Mr. Williams said.
Opponents of the measure countered that it would hurt some victims' efforts to get their case before a jury and argued that the caps on noneconomic damages were placing a price tag on human life.
Debate on the medical malpractice issue now moves to the House, where lawmakers have introduced several bills containing different pieces of the measure passed by the Senate.
Senate Bill 3 caps a plaintiff's jury award for noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, at $250,000 from each defendant and a total of $750,000. It also tightens requirements for expert witnesses and makes other changes supporters say will weed out frivolous lawsuits and make the state's civil justice system fairer.