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A bill that would limit who can be sued for medical malpractice cleared its first legislative hurdle on Thursday — with the blessing of attorneys who represent injured patients.

"We support this bill and that may sound a little unusual," said attorney Charles Thronson, president of the Association for Justice, at a Thursday House Health and Human Services hearing on HB135.

Under tort reforms implemented years ago, Utah requires patients who sue health care providers for harm to first have their cases screened for merit by a pre-litigation panel. The panel aims to weed out frivolous lawsuits.

But often, providers who aren't at fault are named as parties and summoned before the panel.

"One example brought to me was of a doctor who, while performing surgery, found a device that had been left in the patient by another provider. The doctor who removed the device was named in a lawsuit," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, an executive at Intermountain Healthcare.

Lawyers take that approach to safeguard their clients from bumping up against legal time limits for suing, explained Thronson.

If evidence surfaces in trial suggesting that a provider who wasn't named in the lawsuit was at fault, it could be too late for the injured patient to seek damages, he explained.

HB135 eliminates the risk of that happening by requiring accused providers to summon other potentially guilty parties to the panel, he said. "It would be no longer incumbent on just plaintiffs to name parties."

The bill also would also free accused providers from having to report a summons to malpractice insurers and hospitals, unless they are found by the pre-litigation panel to be at fault.

The bill cleared the committee and heads now to the House floor.