PHOENIX -- A state legislator wants to impose some new requirements on judges and attorneys in his bid to cut down on medical malpractice lawsuits.
The proposal by Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, would bar lawyers from filing a medical malpractice lawsuit unless they were certified by the state Supreme Court as a "medical malpractice attorney.' Thorpe's bill does not define what it would take to be certified, leaving the details up to the state's high court.
"The idea is to try to weed out the difference between good, legitimate attorneys that are practicing in the area of medical malpractice ... from the ambulance chasers,' he said. Thorpe said he envisions the certification process as establishing minimum standards.
But HB 2465 does not stop there. It also would allow these cases to be heard only by judges who also have been through special training on medical malpractice cases. Thorpe said the reasoning is the same.
"Let's ensure that even a judge assigned to the case has a baseline understanding of the issue.'
The legislation is drawing fire from the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association, which is made up of attorneys who represent plaintiffs in not just medical malpractice but all types of death and personal injury cases.
"This is a restriction on free enterprise,' said organization spokesman Barrett Marson.
"Arizonans should be able to choose the lawyer that best fits them and their needs,' he continued. "This restricts competition and the free market.'
And what the judges think of it remains to be seen: Pete Dunn who lobbies for the Arizona Judges Association said his clients have yet to take a position on the measure.
There's also the argument that the measure specifically singles out medical malpractice for special attention, with no other similar requirement existing now or proposed for any other type of lawsuit. And Thorpe agreed that some kinds of litigation, like patent and intellectual property law, can be far more complex.
He said, though, there's a good reason for that distinction: the effect that malpractice lawsuits have on overall healthcare costs -- and not just for businesses and individuals.
"Our portion of the budget that has to do with health-related issues is huge,' Thorpe said. Anyway, he said, the idea of putting new restrictions on which attorneys can file malpractice lawsuits was suggested to him by doctors he knows.
Despite Thorpe's call for specialists to handle medical malpractice cases, his measure covers only judges and those who file the lawsuits. It imposes no such mandate on those hired by doctors and hospitals to mount a defense.
Thorpe said the distinction is justified.
He said those who specialize in filing malpractice have "chosen to go down that path.' By contrast, he said, a doctor or hospital may want to be represented by its regular defense counsel.
"I'm not sure I'd want to limit the defendant that way,' Thorpe said. "But folks that are kind of on the aggressive end of it, if you will, they're the ones pushing for legal action, I certainly want to hold them to a certain standard.'
Marson ridiculed that logic.
"Of course it's ridiculous to put restriction on plaintiffs that you don't put on defendants,' he said. "Fairness dictations everybody should be held to the same standards.'
Anyway, Marson questioned why Thorpe would want to put doctors at a legal disadvantage, allowing them to be represented by -- and going up against -- patients whose attorneys have been through the certification process.
Thorpe said, though, he sees his certification for both plaintiffs' attorneys and judges more in the area of setting basic standards than providing advanced training.
"I'm not really looking at anything terribly elaborate,' he said, saying it would be up to the Supreme Court to decide what would be appropriate training.
"So we might be talking four-hour training, six-hour training, a week, who knows?' he continued. But Thorpe said he does not envision this being anything like six months of night classes.
"I don't want this to turn into a huge burden for any attorney,' he said.