Michael R. Lee, a lawyer whose firm has offices throughout North Carolina sent us the following take today on the conservative General Assembly’s current war on injured workers and consumers:
The NCGOP opened the current legislative session with a blitzkrieg assault on the civil rights of North Carolinians. High on its list of legislative priorities was so-called tort “reform” and workers’ compensation “reform.” The tort reform the NCGOP, supported by the NC Chamber of Commerce, big business and the insurance industry, is pushing is contained in House Bill 542 and Senate Bill 33.
HB 542 gives the pharmaceutical industry immunity for dangerous drugs if the drugs have FDA approval. Since all prescription drugs sold in the US are required to have prior FDA approval, the drug industry gets total immunity. Only one other state, Michigan, deprives its citizens of the right to seek compensation for defective drugs. HB 542 also contains what is known as “billed vs. paid” which gives the negligent party in a personal injury case the benefit of part of the injured party’s health insurance. This flies in the face of the Republican “personal responsibility” mantra, but the insurance industry is pushing it. The bill also makes it more difficult for expert witnesses to testify in court and gives 75% of all punitive damages after the first $100k to the state. The latter provision is designed to discourage plaintiffs from seeking large punitive damage awards against big businesses. However, the threat of large punitive damage awards is the only thing that keeps big businesses from producing products that kill or severely injure consumers– a la Ford Pinto. If it can be made cheaper with no accountability, businesses will do it to increase profits. Bet on it.
The insanity continues with SB 33, which gives emergency room doctors immunity from their negligence. You heard right: ER doctors are special, or maybe it’s just that doctors, hospitals and the AMA fill the GOP coffers. No other profession has immunity from acts of professional negligence. So if this bill passes, you may want to tell the ambulance driver to head to Virginia or South Carolina to find a hospital.
The workers’ compensation “reform” that the Republicans (along with the NC Chamber, big businesses, insurance industry and a few DINO’s) are pushing is contained in House Bill 709. This bill limits the number of weeks of compensation an injured worker can draw, even if he/she is still disabled and unable to return to work. All lost wage and medical benefits through the workers’ compensation insurance company will stop. This limitation of benefits will result in taxpayers supporting injured workers through Social Security Disability, Medicare and/or Medicaid. Something like this would normally elicit howls of pain from Tea Partiers and average Republicans alike, but the NCGOP nonetheless endorses the provision as payoff to the insurance industry for past support. If an injured worker has permanent work limitations, but is not totally disabled, the bill also requires him to go to work at any type job he can find, whether or not the job is comparable to the job in which he was injured. That will result in a school teacher or electrician being required to go to work at a minimum wage type job after an injury.
Other fun things in store for injured North Carolina workers if this bill passes are: 1) the Industrial Commission will be prohibited from approving any treating doctor other than the ‘company’ doctors the insurance company picks; 2) The Industrial Commission cannot consider testimony from any doctor other than the doctors the insurance company picks, even if the injured worker pays for his own doctor; and 3) Insurance company employees, employers and defense attorneys will be able to confer with the injured worker’s doctors, i.e. tell the doctors what to do, without the worker’s knowledge. If this bill passes, injured workers in NC don’t have much of a chance at receiving justice.
Fortunately, there is some hope. Each of these bills has met with strong opposition in the General Assembly. Let’s hope average North Carolinians continue to stand up and deliver the message to their Representatives and Senators that there will be no political gain in continuing this ill-conceived war.