Senate sinks bill easing malpractice rules

A controversial proposal to ease the requirements for filing a medical malpractice lawsuit died in the Senate Wednesday after a lengthy debate. Lawmakers stopped discussion of the bill without voting and did not take action before the session’s midnight deadline.

The bill, which passed the House last month, was intended to correct what supporters said was an unintended consequence of a state tort reform law approved six years ago. Currently, anyone filing a medical malpractice lawsuit must submit a written opinion from a “similar health care provider” to the one being sued, testifying to the appearance of medical negligence. The bill would have changed the requirement to allow an opinion letter by a “qualified” health care provider, who might not be a similar type of provider but would be legally qualified to testify as an expert witness.

Supporters cited cases in which lawsuits were dismissed because the physicians who submitted opinion letters were not considered similar to the ones being sued. In one case, Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said, a certificate of merit by an ob-gyn was ruled to be invalid because the lawsuit was against a midwife.

In another case, a lawsuit against an emergency physician was dismissed because the opinion letter was written by a doctor who described himself as being certified in general surgery and practicing trauma surgery, even though he also said he spent most of his work time providing care in an emergency department. The Connecticut Supreme Court determined that a letter from a general surgeon would not meet the law’s requirement, even if the surgeon were considered qualified to testify at trial.

“What this bill is about is not tort reform,” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield. “What this bill is about is not having people arbitrarily, in my view, kept outside the courthouse because of a mere technicality.”

But opponents warned that the bill would remove protections against frivolous lawsuits and could undermine efforts to make the state an appealing place for physicians to practice and reduce access to health care.