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Controversial Tort Reform Bill Signed by Deukmejian

October 01, 1987|DANIEL M. WEINTRAUB | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. George Deukmejian on Wednesday signed a secretly drafted and hastily approved measure designed to make it more difficult to sue doctors, manufacturers and businesses for civil wrongdoing.

Deukmejian vetoed a measure to bail out Los Angeles County's faltering network of trauma care centers, saying the specially equipped hospital emergency rooms were a local responsibility that could be paid for from other funds he has approved this year. The governor also vetoed a bill that would have allowed most California workers to take four months of unpaid "parental leave" to care for sick, newborn or newly adopted children.

At the same time, the governor signed two "pork-barrel" measures providing more than $20 million to fund legislators' pet projects, including $250,000 to remodel a Capitol hearing room in honor of Jesse M. Unruh, the state treasurer and former Assembly Speaker who died earlier this year.

Among dozens of other bills that Deukmejian signed Wednesday was a measure barring state tax deductions for business expenses at private clubs that discriminate against women and minorities. That legislation writes into state law regulations adopted earlier this year by the Franchise Tax Board.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 2, 1987 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
A story in Thursday's edition of The Times incorrectly reported that Gov. George Deukmejian signed into law a bill quadrupling the number of sites where individuals can obtain free or low-cost AIDS tests. In fact, Deukmejian vetoed the bill, by Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), calling it "unnecessary."

Facing a constitutional midnight deadline for acting on bills passed at the end of the 1987 legislative session, Deukmejian was at his desk well into the night, plowing through the last of about 900 bills the Legislature sent to him just before adjourning on Sept. 11.

By late Wednesday, Deukmejian, who has campaigned on the theme of cutting back on government, had vetoed 183 bills passed this year by the Democrat-controlled Legislature. He has now vetoed more bills in five years as governor than Ronald Reagan did during his eight years as California's chief executive.

But the Republican governor did not veto the controversial tort reform bill approved by the Legislature on the final night of the 1987 session. That bill, negotiated at the last minute to head off a political war among California's special-interest superpowers, is intended to eliminate some questionable lawsuits from the civil justice system and make it tougher to collect big damage awards.

Supporters say the new law will do this by raising the burden of proof needed to win punitive damages, the awards given to plaintiffs as a way of punishing defendants for malicious conduct. The bill will also require plaintiffs to obtain court approval before suing doctors for punitive damages.

Among the measure's most controversial elements is a provision expected to virtually end lawsuits over "inherently dangerous" products, including tobacco and alcohol. Proponents said that change and others were needed to save a system increasingly backlogged with frivolous litigation.

'Significant Reform'

"I'm very pleased," said Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), author of the bill. "We've taken a very significant step toward reducing the cost of civil litigation. This represents the most significant civil justice reform in California in decades."

But consumer advocates said they were disappointed that Deukmejian, by signing the bill, joined the Legislature in approving a measure that was drafted behind closed doors by representatives for trial lawyers, insurance companies, manufacturers and business.

"This is a bad day for California consumers," said Harry Snyder, West Coast director for Consumers Union. "It will mean the products and services we get will be less safe because businesses will not have the incentive to be as careful."

In vetoing the trauma care measure, by Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), Deukmejian said that funding for the centers could be obtained from another bill he signed that will provide $110 million in block grants for counties statewide with no strings attached.

The Margolin bill would have provided $10 million in state funds, matched by $10 million from the federal government, for trauma centers statewide. The centers are specially equipped hospital emergency rooms where critically injured victims of accidents and violent crime are taken for the most advanced care available.

Los Angeles County, which has seen five of its original 23 trauma centers close because of funding shortfalls, would have received about half of the money provided in Margolin's measure, the lawmaker said.

"I'm bitterly disappointed by the governor's decision to not show leadership on this issue at a time when it is called for," Margolin said.

In his veto message, Deukmejian said the Margolin bill, which was approved by bipartisan majorities in the Senate and the Assembly, would reduce the incentive that hospitals have to collect the money owed them. He suggested that counties could use some of the block grant money to support the trauma centers.

"If these are high-priority programs for a county, the county has local discretion over using these funds for trauma and uncompensated care," Deukmejian said.

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