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POLITICAL INTELLIGENCE The Lege, the Lobby, and the Last Days Tort Deform Rises Again In late March, the House passed a disastrous tort reform bill that capped jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits and all but closed the courthouse door to many Texans \(“Tort House Bill 4’s numerous critics at the time, the real fight would be in the Senate. They had good reason to hope. The battle in the House, where the powerful tort reform lobby had installed a Republican majority, was a lost cause from the start. But in the Senate, the thinking went, lawmakers would be less beholden to the monied interests, and State Affairs Committee Chairman Bill Ratliff \(RHouse version’s more ambitious sections. At first, their faith seemed wellplaced. Ratliff held more than 60 hours of reasoned committee hearings on the bill and in mid April unveiled a rewritten and far-more sensible HB 4. But to the horror of Democrats, trial lawyers, and consumer groups, the version of HB 4 the Senate passed on May 16 looked disturbingly similar to the House bill. In the weeks between Ratliff’s first rewrite and final Senate passage, groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform stealthily stole the bill from Ratliff and eroded many of his initial improvements. As it turned out, the real fight certainly was in the Senate. And the tort reform lobby won, again. As Senate sponsor of HB 4, Ratliff could steer the bill in the direction he thought was fair. His initial rewrite raised the caps on medical malpractice jury awards, and removed caps on damages in cases where the jury had reached a unanimous decision. It also dispatched with the section that required state agencies to first handle class action suits; balanced the provision in the House bill that punished only plaintiffs for not accepting settlement offers; and revised the article that capped companies’ asbestos liability. While critics of HB 4 correctly predicted that the Senate would be less tethered to Texans for Lawsuit Reform’s campaign contributions than the House, they overlooked just how slanted the State Affairs Committee is. The panel includes at least three ardent tort reform defenders in Senators Todd Staples R-found three more allies on the committee in Ken Armbrister \(D-R-R-When State Affairs debated Ratliff’s final version of HB 4 on May 13, the committee members were armed with more than 20 amendments. Ratliff could do little to stop them. Several amendments that reconstituted long-dead sections of the House version were adopted over his objections. Armbrister exempted nonprofit hospitals from certain liability, and included under the damage caps any private contractors working at hospitals. Staples made the bill effective for all cases filed after May 30 \(before the restored a provision that restricted the manufacturers’ liability for products that had been approved by a government agency. Sensing that tort reformers were snatching the bill from Ratliff, Sen. the chairman’s defense: “Governor, I was for your bill this morning, and I just want you to know I’ll still be for you this evening. I’m not sure I’ll be for your bill, though.” Ellis promised to filibuster HB 4 on the floor if Ratliff wasn’t happy with what the committee passed. But the savvy tort reformers reinserted provisions from the House version without completely alienating Ratliff. They left untouched the section Ratliff cares about mostcaps on medical malpractice jury awards. The House bill capped noneconomic damages at $250,000 per suit. Ratliff changed that to $250,000 per defendant, with a max of $750,000 per suit. With Ratliff’s caps intact in the Senate version, HB 4 passed committee unanimously. The full Senate approved the bill by a 28-3 vote. The end result is a Senate bill that’s only a slight improvement on the House version, the main difference being the Senate’s higher 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 616/03