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Tort reforms enacted in Utah

The measure includes damage caps, affidavits of merit and other changes physicians say will help curb frivolous lawsuits and attract physicians to the state.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted April 15, 2010

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Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed into law a series of tort reform measures limiting noneconomic damages in medical liability cases and establishing lawsuit requirements that physicians say will add stability to the legal system and improve access to care.

The legislation, signed March 23, places a $450,000 fixed cap on pain and suffering awards, eliminating annual inflation adjustments included in a prior cap that stood at $488,000.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, also requires patients to secure an affidavit from a medical expert certifying a lawsuit's merits to pursue any case that a screening panel had determined had no basis.

A separate measure revived a 2006 apology statute that was invalidated by a court ruling the same year. The legislation, which took effect upon passage in March, bars physicians' sympathy statements related to an adverse event from being used against them as evidence in legal proceedings.

Physicians called the reforms an important compromise between the medical community and the trial bar that will help curb frivolous lawsuits and relieve physicians of unnecessary legal costs.

"We are in a shortage and will continue to be, and we need everything we can to attract physicians to the state of Utah. That's the goal, and all of these reforms will help," said Michelle McOmber, CEO and executive vice president of the Utah Medical Assn.

The hard cap will help make physicians' liability costs more predictable, she said. Doctors saw an overall 9.5% increase in their premiums from 2006 to keep up with the annual inflationary adjustments under the prior law.

McOmber also noted that between 45% and 65% of cases deemed to be nonmeritorious by screening panels still went forward, "and that adds a lot of costs."

Representatives from the Utah Assn. for Justice, a state trade group for plaintiff lawyers, did not respond to calls for comment by this article's deadline.

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