Oregon lawmakers to consider tort overhaul

By Chris Rizo | May 22, 2008

Dennis Richardson

SALEM, Ore. (Legal Newsline)-Democratic legislative leaders in Oregon on Thursday named a special bipartisan panel to examine the Beaver State's tort laws.

The blue ribbon panel, created by legislation in February, includes 10 lawmakers and various stakeholder groups, including local governments and the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association.

The so-called Tort Claims Task Force was created to protect injured parties, but also shield government entities, whose liability was increased under a recent state Supreme Court ruling, state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici told Legal Newsline.

"We need to protect the rights of people who are injured, but at the same time address the concerns of the governmental entities that are not only facing economic hardship but also accustomed to having some amount of protection from the tort claim statute," said Bonamici, D-Beaverton.

Among legal issues the task force is expected to tackle are questions of separating medical malpractice from other claims, adjusting award caps for inflation, economic versus non-economic damages and establishing a procedural mechanism for challenging caps.

By statute, the state has a tort liability cap of $200,000 in malpractice cases where the state is involved, as in state-funded hospitals, including Oregon Health and Science University, a major teaching hospital in Portland.

But that law was shaken late last by the state's high court.

One of the panel's other members, state Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, told Legal Newsline that the panel will help hammer out legislative proposals to be considered when lawmakers meet for their 2009 session.

"We're going to do the research and the hearings so that tort reform can be adequately addressed in the 09 session," said Richardson, an attorney.

The panel was created after the Oregon Supreme Court ruled last year that while OHSU is protected by the liability cap as a public institution, it does not extend to employees of the hospital.

Since another state law requires public agencies to pay damages won against their employees, the decision effectively eliminated the cap.

In the case, the Supreme Court agreed with a 2006 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling that allowed the family of a brain-damaged child to sue OHSU for more than $17 million in connection with injuries the child suffered at the hospital as a three-month-old baby.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo by e-mail at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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