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French Assemly Limits Damages for Disabled - 2002-01-11

France's national assembly approved legislation Thursday that will limit financial compensation for those born with disabilities. The proposed law was drafted in response to a highly controversial court case in which a brain-damaged boy sued medical practitioners for having been born.

The amendment takes aim at what many French simply call the Perruche affair. At issue is a lawsuit filed on behalf of an 18-year-old boy who was born deaf, brain damaged and nearly blind. The boy's lawyers argued medical authorities were responsible for his birth, because they failed to detect that his mother had rubella during her pregnancy and was therefore likely to give birth to a baby with physical and mental defects.

Not only did Nicolas Perruche win his case, but in November, France's highest court increased the financial damages owed him. Originally set at $100,000, a new figure will be determined later this month. The ruling also opened up new opportunities for others born with disabilities to sue.

The case has sparked a furor in France, with doctors, politicians and religious leaders loudly denouncing it. So this week, the government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin backed an amendment limiting similar court cases in the future. Under it, those born with disabilities could only seek damages when medical error was blatant, and could clearly be proven.

Before the measure becomes law, it must also be approved by France's senate, but it is believed to have broad bipartisan support in that chamber. A big factor in its favor is that, with national elections coming up, the legislation has already scored points with the medical community.

Many advocates for the disabled also back the legislation. Nonetheless, some of them argue the Perruche court ruling helped highlight the financial burdens and discrimination faced by those born with handicaps in France.

The French government hopes the law will pass before parliament recesses late February, to prepare for legislative and presidential elections.