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House leadership helps push abortion-lawsuit bill through subcommittee

02/22/2017 10:51 AM EST

Doctors Visit

Before passing the bill, the committee added an amendment making clear that women who pursue a lawsuit
under the new cause of action would be precluded from suing a physician for medical
malpractice. Getty

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that could increase lawsuits against physicians who provide abortions passed by a two-vote margin on Wednesday, but only after House leadership dispatched Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues to the subcommittee to ensure that the bill passed.

Though there are ten Republicans on the Health Quality Subcommittee, vice chairman Rep. Rene Plasencia and freshman Rep. Alexandra Miller broke ranks and voted with the Democrats in opposing HB 19.

Rodrigues cast a vote in favor of the bill, which passed 9-7.

The bill creates a new cause of action separate from medical malpractice that allows women who have had an abortion to sue for any physical or emotional injuries caused by the physician’s negligence or failure to obtain the informed consent. A woman must bring a claim within four years from the injury or four years from the time the woman knew or should have known of the injury. No lawsuit can be filed 10 years after having an abortion. The limitation periods are tolled while a woman is a minor, and the bill has a July 1, 2017 effective date.

The measure was opposed by Planned Parenthood of Florida, as well as the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Osteopathic Medical Association, and the Doctors Company, the largest medical malpractice writer in the state of Florida.

Mark Delegal, a lobbyist for the Doctors Company, told the panel members that the bill could unravel the sweeping changes the Florida Legislature made in 2003 to the state’s medical malpractice laws. Delegal told the subcommittee that those changes, pushed by then Gov. Jeb Bush, helped reduce medical malpractice premiums in the state by 35 percent.

He also told the subcommittee that had the Legislature tried to carve abortion out from the medical malpractice statutes during the debate in 2003 he would have cautioned against it because of equal protection requirements.

Florida Justice Reform Institute President William Large issued a statement noting that the bill prohibits a physician from relying upon a patient’s signed, informed consent form as a defense against an emotional distress claim that, under the bill, can now be filed up to ten years after the procedure.

"There’s nothing to suggest that current law is insufficient to address any harm suffered by women who have had abortions — certainly nothing that justifies vastly expanding physician liability and treating those injured by abortions differently from all other medical malpractice claimants," Large said.

Ocala physician and Florida Medical Association member Douglas Murphy told the subcommittee that the bill is “clearly designed to limit abortions in the state, that’s obvious.”

Murphy, an obstetrician and gynecologist, stressed that he has never provided an abortion his 33 years of practice, but he said it was a “further intrusion by the Legislature" into the offices and exam rooms of physicians, calling it "ill advised."

He said if the same conditions applied to physicians who delivered babies he would no longer practice, and that if he were “fresh out of training” he “would not consider coming to this state to practice.”

Before passing the bill, the committee added an amendment making clear that women who pursue a lawsuit under the new cause of action would be precluded from suing a physician for medical malpractice.

Rep. Erin Grall, the bill's sponsor, said despite the public testimony from physicians and insurance lobbyists and Planned Parenthood, the subcommittee did not hear from any woman who has had an abortion “and feels comfortable talking about her regret in a public forum like this."

"I know that woman and I know many women like that and it’s real,” a teary eyed Grall told the panel in her closing remarks.