Monterey Herald
Monday, May 5, 2003

Lawyers Fight Bill to Cap Jury Awards
By Dan Laidman (

Mary E. Alexander, president
of Association of Trial Lawyers of AmericaMary E. Alexander
           The nation's main trial lawyers group met in Monterey on Saturday to hone its strategy for fighting a cap on medical malpractice jury awards.

            At the urging of President Bush, the House passed a bill in March that would put a $250,000 cap on punitive and noneconomic damages. Health providers largely have backed the legislation, saying it would bring down insurance premiums.

            The bill, which passed on a 229-196 vote, now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to encounter more resistance, especially from Democrats.  Trial lawyers have led the opposition, along with some consumer groups.

            Mary Alexander, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, noted Saturday that California already has a similar cap on the books and that insurance premiums have not gone down.

            "We know that it doesn't work here in California," said Alexander, who is based in San Francisco. "It is very important that this terrible law we have in California not go national."

            Bush cited California's law as a model when he gave a speech touting the legislation in January. Proponents say the legislation is necessary because insurance premiums should be less costly without the specter of excessive jury awards, making health care more affordable.

            Alexander counters that reining in insurance companies, not capping jury awards, will help solve the problem. She notes that studies have shown that premiums went up in California after the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act passed in 1976, instituting award caps. Premiums dropped only after Proposition 103 added new regulation of the insurance industry in 1988.

            On that track, the trial lawyers group is pushing for national legislation that would make insurance companies subject to antitrust laws, Alexander said.

            At its conference at the Monterey Plaza Hotel, the governing board discussed new strategies to fight the award cap bill as it heads to the Senate.  The tactics will include airing television commercials featuring victims of egregious medical malpractice.

            It is part of a populist strategy the trial lawyers have adopted to counter Republican attempts to vilify them. Alexander said that the legislation would protect HMOs and pharmaceutical companies while hurting vulnerable members of society who benefit from noneconomic damages and have no other recourse.  Noneconomic damages are compensation for injuries that affect a person's quality
of life.

            "These wrongdoers should be held accountable," Alexander said. "This law would discriminate against women, children, the elderly and those in society who make less money."

            As the president drummed up support for the bill earlier this year, there were several highly publicized work stoppages by disgruntled doctors protesting high premiums in several states. The issue soon became a hotly debated national topic.

            Locally, though, malpractice awards have not been as divisive, said Frank Hespe, Monterey College of Law dean and past president of the Monterey County Bar Association.

            Hespe said that Monterey County judges and lawyers tend to work in harmony to reach settlements.

            "I think the local legal community is amazingly reasonable when it comes down to what's likely to happen at trial," he said.

            The national legislation likely would not have much of a local effect because of California's existing laws, Hespe said, but it is still significant because of the broader issues involved.

            "It's hard to tell how much of the concern being voiced in the legislation is because they're worried about what's happening, and how much is because it gives them a good political target to go after," Hespe said. "Beating up on lawyers is something that people like to do."