Victims of medical negligence will be limited on how much they get from doctors and other medical providers for damages such as pain and suffering as more than 50 new state laws approved this year are enforced starting this weekend.
Other changes approved by the Legislature taking effect Saturday will loosen helmet rules for ATV riders, require local governments to check the immigration status of new hires using a federal program and alter trespassing rules for hunters. New restrictions on developing state regulations also will begin.
A $500,000 cap on what patients can collect in "non-economic damages" -- things like pain, suffering and injuries such as lost body parts -- applies to medical malpractice lawsuits filed starting Oct. 1. Doctors would still have to pay medical bills, lost wages and other kinds of monetary losses resulting from their negligence.
Limits on non-economic damages became law after the Republican-led Legislature overrode the veto of Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, who opposed the cap because it would harm many victims of catastrophic injuries. The bill also requires a jury to determine negligence for emergency conditions using a higher standard of proof.
More than 30 states have a limit or cap on damages in medical liability cases. North Carolina already has a cap on punitive damages.
The medical community had sought the cap of non-economic damages for years, saying the potential for unlimited awards destabilized malpractice insurance premiums. There could be a flurry of litigation filed before Saturday's deadline, said North Carolina Medical Society chief executive officer Bob Seligson.
"Over time, we do expect a positive impact in the reduction of unnecessary costs associated with medical malpractice litigation," said Seligson, adding that it should help control health care costs and improve patient access.
The state's leading trial lawyers' group has said the cap runs counter to the constitutional right for a trial by jury in civil cases and could discourage attorneys from taking on such expensive cases to pursue.
Until there's a successful constitutional challenge, "we are concerned that patients injured by malpractice will have difficulty obtaining legal representation, putting justice further out of reach," said Dick Taylor with the North Carolina Advocates for Justice. "The law systematically makes the pursuit of justice -- even in cases of catastrophic injury -- extraordinarily difficult."
Regulatory changes also taking effect were approved by Republicans who say their constituents complain government bureaucrats have too much power making rules about how they do business.
The new law seeks to rein in regulators by preventing them from issuing rules more restrictive than federal regulations unless expressly told to do so by the Legislature. State agencies also must review rules annually and repeal those considered burdensome or unnecessary. It also must offer alternatives when the cost to those affected by the regulations would exceed $500,000 in a 12-month period.
Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston, was a chief sponsor of the package that became law after another Perdue veto and ensuing override. He said Wednesday the changes would lay out the state's rule-making parameters so citizens and businesses aren't surprised with how they have to comply.
"The goal here is to strike a good balance so that we have the rules and regulations that we need to protect the consumers and protect the environment, but also to have the certainty and stability and transparency," Rouzer said.
Environmental activists are worried the package could dial back safeguards that keep water and air clean and make it virtually impossible for agencies to issue effective regulations.
"We anticipate it will cause a great deal of confusion and delays and unexpected consequences," Sierra Club state director Molly Diggins said. "It simply isn't practical to make that ordinary business of government so inefficient."
Another law says adult drivers of ATVs won't be required to wear a helmet and eye protection while riding on private property. The exemption amends a 2005 law that supporters say placed too many restrictions on personal freedom. Eyewear and helmets are still required for adults ATV drivers on public streets and for children at all times.
The first step of new requirements to prevent illegal immigrants from landing jobs begins with city and county governments directed to use the federal government's E-Verify system to check a person's legal status in the country. The requirement expands to big North Carolina companies next year and smaller companies in 2013.
Also, people who hunt or fish on lands with posted no trespassing signs or strips of purple paint on trees must carry written permission slips from the landowners. Wildlife agents will now be able to cite them immediately if they don't have a slip. More stringent local trespassing laws still apply.
Other laws taking effect will:
-- allow parents of a stillborn infant to obtain from the state a document similar to a birth certificate to say the birth occurred. Supporters have said such a document gives a family a tangible recognition of the child.
-- make legal the erecting of campaign signs and placards in rights-of-way leading up to and right after an election, and to make it the lowest-grade misdemeanor to steal or vandalize such signs.