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State Senate race seen as proxy fight over malpractice law

State Senate race seen as proxy fight over malpractice law
Assembly member Dr. Richard Pan holds his son William, 4, after the swearing in of new members at the Capitol in 2010. Pan won a tough state Senate race last week over fellow Democratic Assembly member Roger Dickinson. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The decades-long battle over medical malpractice limits played out in a very public way with Proposition 46, which would have raised the cap on pain and suffering damages to $1.1 million.

The doctors, insurers and other healthcare interests who opposed that measure scored a major victory with its defeat. But they also notched another notable win in a state Senate race that may not have captured the attention of voters statewide but certainly gained notice in the Capitol.

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The race was a costly intra-party battle between two Democratic Assembly members: Richard Pan, a doctor, and Roger Dickinson, an attorney. Pan opposed Proposition 46; Dickinson supported it.

"Clearly, there were people who saw this as a proxy battle" over the medical malpractice law, Dickinson said in an interview last week.

Pan won by the race six points.

The contest attracted nearly $5 million in outside spending, the vast majority to boost Pan. Business interests and labor groups alike allied with Pan, but the largest spender on his behalf was the Californians Allied for Patient Protection.

That group was created in 1991 with the sole purpose of preserving the state's landmark malpractice law, which was passed in 1975. They're funded by malpractice insurance companies, state medical and dental associations and other healthcare interests.

CAPP spent more than $1.5 million in this year's primary and general elections to aid Pan.

Lisa Maas, executive director of the group, said it was "part of a broad and diverse coalition, that included business and labor, who make it a priority to support leaders like Dr. Pan who are proven problem-solvers and effective legislators."

"This race was a priority because Dr. Pan has been a standout legislator on a broad range of issues and, as the only physician in the Legislature, he brings needed experience and expertise," she said in a statement.

Trial lawyers, along with environmentalists, spent around $315,000 to bolster Dickinson this year.

Pan noted the cap itself was hardly a major topic in the campaign. And he said that many of his backers in 2014 had supported him in previous races.

"The people who initially supported me continued to support me because of the work I was able to get done in the Legislature and in my community," Pan said Monday. "They were not just supporting me because I was against Proposition 46."

Dickinson, meanwhile, said the barrage of opposition he faced could send a potent message to lawmakers who may consider pressing for changes in the malpractice law in the future.

"After you watch what happened to me, wouldn't you have second thoughts about it?" he asked.

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.

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