NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge says Louisiana cannot enforce a 1997 law that allowed lawsuits against abortion doctors even without allegations of negligence or poor care.
The law also kept doctors who perform abortions out of a state-run medical malpractice review process and a fund to pay malpractice judgments.
U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan ruled March 1 that the law is unconstitutionally vague and, by driving responsible abortion providers out of business, would impose an undue burden on any woman who wanted an abortion.
Her order Thursday formally blocks its enforcement.
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The law's authors are no longer in the Legislature.
"This law was nothing but an attempt to drive responsible abortion providers out of practice," said Stephanie Toti, senior staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Louisiana malpractice law limits awards to $500,000 and sets up a review board to decide, before a case can go to trial for damages, whether the doctor was negligent or provided poor care.
The 1997 law amended state liability law — which does not limit monetary awards — to allow lawsuits for any damage caused by an abortion.
"All anyone has to allege is that an abortion has occasioned damage, either to a pregnant woman or to a fetus. And given that every successful abortion is going to occasion damage to a fetus, every successful abortion is a cause for a lawsuit under the statute," Toti said.
A court order forbade enforcing the law from 1997 through 2001. That order was lifted in 2001, but the law wasn't invoked until 2007.
The center, representing two doctors and five clinics, went to court in 2007, after the malpractice review board refused to hear a negligence suit against a doctor at a Shreveport clinic. The board's attorneys said that because the lawsuit involved an abortion it was not subject to Louisiana's medical malpractice law.
"Even though the patient alleged negligence, she didn't have to prove negligence to win her case," Toti said. "That's what led the abortion providers to file suit."
The Patient's Compensation Fund ultimately did review the lawsuit while the challenge to the liability law was in court. It found that the doctor had not been negligent, Toti said.
The case originally was assigned to U.S. District Judge Ralph Tyson in the federal court in Baton Rouge. Berrigan got the case and heard it in Baton Rouge after Tyson died.