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May 10th, 2011

ATRA Paper Makes Clear Case for Constitutionality of Federal Medical Liability Reform

WASHINGTON — With the House Energy and Commerce Committee poised to begin marking up H.R. 5, the “Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-Cost, Timely Healthcare (HEALTH) Act of 2011,” the American Tort Reform Association has issued a paper that its president says “makes a clear case that the legislation passes constitutional muster.”

The ATRA paper, The Constitutional Foundation for Federal Medical Liability Reform, addresses in some detail questions recently raised about whether provisions of H.R. 5 are consistent with the Commerce Clause, the Tenth Amendment, the guarantees of equal protection and due process, and the right to a jury trial.

“Citing more than 100 years’ worth of Supreme Court precedent, the consistent rejection of federal constitutional challenges to state medical liability reforms, and the opinion of the Congressional Research Service itself,” Joyce said, “our paper puts an end to any serious concern or question about the constitutionality of federal medical liability reform.

“With respect to perhaps the most important question about whether the Commerce Clause gives Congress sufficient authority to promulgate medical liability reform for the nation as a whole, it’s not even a close call.  Congress has that authority.

“Our paper also conclusively addresses questions about state authority and flexibility,” continued Joyce.  “H.R. 5 preserves state medical liability laws already on the books, regardless of whether states have enacted limits on noneconomic damages that are higher or lower than the $250,000 limit in the federal legislation.

“H.R. 5’s federal limits on noneconomic and punitive damages in medical liability claims serve as a default rule that only applies when state law would otherwise allow for unlimited damages, and the Supreme Court has already upheld such statutory liability limits or the ‘drawing of lines,’” Joyce added.

“Finally, our paper answers the question of whether federal action is needed and appropriate.  Though ATRA and its members may believe the answer here is self-evident, our paper nonetheless notes the adverse effects of excessive medical liability that extend beyond state lines, the federal government’s huge financial stake in the healthcare system, and the well documented benefits of liability reform,” he concluded.

The ATRA paper was written by attorney Mark Behrens, a partner at Shook Hardy & Bacon L.L.P. in Washington, D.C.

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