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House passes bill to raise cap on wrongful death awards

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The bill by Rep. Joe Gallegos, D-Hillsboro, boosts the cap from $500,000 to $1.5 million.


Salem - The House passed a bill Wednesday that raises the cap on noneconomic jury awards for wrongful death claims from $500,000 to $1.5 million.

Rep. Joe Gallegos, D-Hillsboro, said he proposed the measure to give victims who have lost loved ones the same opportunities for justice as victims in injury cases for which there is no jury award limit.

After passing the House 33-to-26 Wednesday, the measure now proceeds to the Senate.

The legislation stirred up partisan passions on the House floor Wednesday. Republicans accused Democrats of railroading the legislation without giving full consideration of the consequences to rural physicians and others who might have to pay higher liability insurance under the measure.

PARIS ACHEN - Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, holds up a visual aid he planned to use for House floor debate on a bill that raises the cap on noneconomic jury awards for wrongful death cases. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, prohibited it from being shown for impugning members.During floor debate, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, ordered Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, to remove from the floor a poster portraying a $350,000 check written out to “Trial Lawyers.”

A yes vote would be “signing the check,” Post said.

Post said he used the visual aid to make a point that the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Government Effectiveness had rejected an amendment to the bill by Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, that would have capped attorneys’ fees to about 33 percent of an award.

The $350,000 figure was a reflection of how much an attorney would be paid on average on a $1.5 million jury award, Post said.

Post said the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association regularly contributes thousands of dollars to Democrat candidate campaigns. The Secretary of State’s database reflects that to be true.

House Democrats responded in a statement that Republicans receive campaign contributions from insurance companies "on the other side of the issue."

Kotek said the visual aid impugned members who were voting in favor of the bill. Republicans challenged her ban on Post’s visual aid and called for a vote. Lawmakers supported Kotek’s order.

Republican lawmakers said they also opposed the cap increase because it would jack up the cost of liability insurance for already struggling rural physicians.

Rep. David Gomberg, D-Central Coast, disagreed. He said that since Oregon lifted a cap on injury awards 17 years ago, the number of medical practitioners in rural counties increased by 23 percent.

"It’s obvious that we’ve got many challenges facing practitioners in rural areas, and many economic incentives for young professionals to leave to cities," Gomberg said. "That’s why we’ve put in place a number of incentives like tax credits, and reimbursements and loan forgiveness that are intended to keep doctors in our rural communities – and colleagues, the numbers show that it’s working. We can ensure that victims and grieving families have access to more just compensation and we can also take care of our rural communities.”

Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, said the bill would help families like those of Andrew Lane, a 22-year-old laborer who died from carbon monoxide poisoning May 13, 2014, while relieving himself in a bucket in the back of work truck. Lane’s family has filed a $4 million wrongful death claim in Multnomah County Circuit Court against Lane’s employer, Superior Home Maintenance.

A similar bill passed the House in 2009 by 55-to-4 but died in the Senate. Several of the Republicans who voted against the cap increase Wednesday voted in favor of the 2009 measure.

Reps. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, and Brent Barton, D-Clackamas County, declared a conflict of interest concerning the bill because both are personal injury attorneys. Rayfield is vice-chairman of the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Government Effectiveness, which sent the bill to the floor.


By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
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