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Should ER docs be given added protection against lawsuits?

Staff Report • Mar 19, 2012 at 6:14 AM

Tennessee legislators will soon consider a bill to grant hospitals and physicians additional protection from malpractice lawsuits stemming from emergency room care. Sponsors of the measure say the bill would help reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits and reduce health care costs.

Opponents, on the other hand, say the legislation would allow hospitals and doctors to provide negligent medical care in ERs.

“For example, if you go to the ER with chest pains and the doctor carelessly misdiagnoses you with bronchitis and you go home and have a massive heart attack and die, under the proposed legislation there is no recourse for this kind of sloppiness,” Keith Williams, president of the Tennessee Association for Justice, said last week. “In effect, a doctor would have no responsibility for careless errors that could ultimately cost you your life.”

Under the legislation, a patient must prove gross negligence (a standard just short of criminal behavior) to bring a successful lawsuit. The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Glen Casada and Sen. Jack Johnson, both Republicans from College Grove.

Williams says the current standard for medical negligence already grants sufficient protections to ER doctors. The law says ER doctors are protected as long as they render care that is consistent with standards set by their peers. Only when they fail to meet those standards and harm patient can they be held liable under the present law.

Opponents of the legislation also say the Casada/Johnson measure goes one giant step further by also protecting surgeons if their patients are admitted through the ER.

“Should a law be passed allowing ER doctors to commit negligent acts on patients in Tennessee? That’s exactly what this bill does,” Williams said. “With 98,000 people dying each year from medical errors, clearly the answer is ‘no.’ ”

Tennessee lawmakers passed tort reform last year that caps non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, at $750,000 and punitive damages at $500,000.

Tell us what you think. Should emergency room doctors be given added protection against medical malpractice lawsuits?

Send your comments to Mailbag, P.O. Box 1717, Johnson City, TN 37605-1717, or mailbag@johnsoncitypress.com. Please include your name, telephone number and address for verification.

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