ATLANTA — The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday struck down a key portion of a much debated law that lets medical malpractice defendants move a lawsuit to their home county if that’s where the alleged offense occurred.

The decision takes a bite out of the venue portion of a law passed last year by the Republican-led Legislature. Proponents of the change said too many trial lawyers were abusing the court system to shop for plaintiff-friendly forums.

The court’s ruling stems from a malpractice suit from a patient who alleged doctors failed to quickly diagnose and properly treat a stroke. The patient sued in Fulton County, but the defendant argued that the case should be tried in Bartow County, where the alleged malpractice took place.

In a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, the high court ruled that the venue portion of the law violates the Georgia Constitution. The state’s constitution grants the power of changing venue to the courts alone, she wrote, while the new law tries to vest that power in the defendants.

In another decision, the court upheld a section of the law that allows a judge to transfer a case to another county if the judge — not defendant — decides that the move is in “the interest of justice” and the “convenience of parties.”

The hotly contested tort reform law also capped pain-and-suffering awards at $350,000 for malpractice cases, toughened expert witness standards and set up incentives for patients to settle out of court.

Doctors and hospitals contended the measure, dubbed “civil justice reform,” would suppress rising malpractice insurance rates and help lure more doctors to Georgia. Business lobbies, too, threw their weight behind the bill because it encourages speedy out-of-court settlements and penalizes parties who file frivolous lawsuits.

But trial lawyers argued that limiting damage awards puts an arbitrary price on a victim’s life, and that the state’s medical insurer fostered a false crisis by driving up premiums in a market with no competition.

Since the bill was signed into law, it has faced a barrage of court challenges.

Consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch said state judges have now struck down parts of the law in 17 cases. Monday’s split decisions are the first, though, involving the state’s highest court.

Allie Wall, executive director of Georgia Watch, applauded the court for striking down the venue portion, which she called a “lenient, defendant-friendly” provision.

“Thankfully the state’s highest court used common sense when looking at the rights of a plaintiff as well as what makes the most sense when you’re looking at the judicial system,” she said.

The legislation’s sponsor, state Sen. Preston Smith, said he expected court challenges.

“Any time you pass comprehensive legislation, it could take 10 years to move through the courts,” said Smith, a Rome Republican.

He added that lawmakers have no immediate plans to respond to the court’s development. “I don’t think enough time has passed to digest it.”

Agreeing to the decisions were six state justices and DeKalb Superior Court Judge Daniel Coursey, who sat in for Justice Harold Melton. Melton, who recused himself from the cases, was Gov. Sonny Perdue’s executive counsel before he became the court’s newest justice last year.

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