Ga. SC upholds 2005 tort reform measures

John O'Brien Mar. 16, 2010, 1:49pm


ATLANTA (Legal Newsline) - The Georgia Supreme Court made two key decisions Monday, upholding a pair of tort reform measures passed in a 2005 legislative package.

One opinion allows a party that attempted to settle to shift its attorneys fees to the party that refused to accept the settlement offer, while the other opinion upholds a part of the package that says emergency room doctors can only be sued for gross negligence.

The 4-3 decision rejected a couple's claim that it was unconstitutional to place that protection on emergency room doctors.

"Promoting affordable liability insurance for health care providers and hospitals, and thereby promoting the availability of quality health care services, are certainly legitimate legislative purposes," says the opinion, written by Justice George Carley.

"Furthermore, it is entirely logical to assume that emergency medical care provided in hospital emergency rooms is different from medical care provided in other settings, and that establishing
a standard of care and a burden of proof that reduces the potential liability of the providers of such care will help achieve those legitimate legislative goals."

Justice Robert Benham authored a dissent, arguing the law is unconstitutional on two grounds: "(T)he General Assembly previously enacted a general law concerning the standard of care to which medical personnel must adhere to avoid liability; and the classification of those affected by the new legislation is unreasonable."

The other law in dispute allowed a defendant to recover reasonable attorneys fees and expenses if the plaintiff rejected a settlement offer and won a final judgment that was less than 75 percent of the settlement offer.

Similarly, a plaintiff could recover reasonable attorneys fees and expenses if the defendant rejected its settlement offer, and the plaintiff won a final judgment that was 125 percent more than the settlement offer.

"The clear purpose of this general law is to encourage litigants in tort cases to make and accept good faith settlement proposals in order to avoid unnecessary litigation," Carley wrote.

"This is certainly a legitimate legislative purpose, consistent with this state's strong public policy of encouraging negotiations and settlements. Moreover, the fact that the statute applies to tort cases, but not other civil actions, does not render it an impermissible special law."

Chief Justice Carol Hunstein authored a dissent.

"The majority tries to have its cake and eat it, too, by first denying a right to access the courts but then hedging its ruling by stating that, "even if" such a right exists, the statute at issue here does not violate it," she wrote.

"This is no way to interpret our state's constitution. A right to access the courts is too important, too fundamental to the maintenance of all our other rights, to be accorded such casual treatment."

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