[author: Courtney Sherwood]
The medical professionals who let a Florida mother bleed to death after giving birth, as well as those whose negligence led to disabling brain injuries in a Missouri boy, could learn that their errors will cost them much more than they’d expected, depending on the outcome of several court cases now under consideration.
About half of U.S. states limit how much hospitals and doctors can be forced to pay if they’re found in court to have provided negligent care. But limits in Florida and Missouri, as well as in Indiana, could soon be struck down, depending on rulings expected soon out of those states’ supreme courts.
These cases, and one that’s already been decided in Texas, promise to make 2012 an eventful year for followers of medical malpractice damage caps. These caps, which supporters claim will rein in the cost of health care, limit how much people injured by their doctors can receive if they successfully sue. In Florida, the limits prohibit courts from awarding payouts for emotional suffering or to punish doctors and nurses. In Missouri, these non-economic damage payments are limited to $350,000.
Despite claims about reducing health care costs, research has shown little correlation between medical malpractice caps and the cost of care. Instead, according to a growing number of consumer advocates, these laws limit patient rights, often at the behest of big businesses. In their favor, however, these caps have been shown to help states attract doctors, suggesting that they could benefit communities with chronic shortages of health care providers.
Michelle McCall’s parents and her son, who survived his 2005 birth though his mother did not, are behind the Florida Supreme Court challenge. McCall died of blood loss after a doctor took hours to respond to an emergency while she was in labor and medical support staff failed to quickly provide updates about her deteriorating medical condition after she delivered her child. McCall’s family successfully argued in court that without the negligence of the medical staff on hand, the 20-year-old would have survived. A federal district court judge awarded her estate nearly $3 million, with $2 million of that for pain and suffering and other noneconomic damages – but the award was lowered to $1 million because of Florida’s damage caps.
Pregnancy errors are also behind the Missouri Supreme Court’s review of that state’s malpractice caps. Five-year-old Nathan Watts was born with severe brain injuries that will leave him mentally disabled for life, but which could have been avoided if doctors had responded to signs of distress during his mother’s pregnancy, attorneys for Deborah Watts successfully argued. But a $4.8 million jury award was reduced by more than $1 million because of limits on noneconomic damages in Missouri medical malpractice cases.
In Indiana, Tim Plank, a widower whose wife died after doctors overlooked a dangerous bowel obstruction, won an $8.5 million malpractice claim against Community Hospital North, but it was reduced to $1.25 million under a state law that limits medical damage awards. Indiana’s Supreme Court is set to review a challenge to those malpractice limits later this year.
In all three cases, lawyers argue that malpractice caps cause more harm than good.
“The purpose of caps is to keep people from having access to courts. Caps don’t take away bad cases, caps prevent those who have truly been injured from accessing compensation for their injury,” said Jim M. Perdue Jr., attorney with Houston-based Perdue Kidd & Vickery.
Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, issued a 2011 report in which it found that medical liability caps make care less available and more expensive – and prevent patients from being fully compensated for damage caused by bad doctors. Insurance companies and doctors are the ones who most benefit from malpractice caps, Public Citizen found.
Court watchers don’t know what to expect out of the Indiana, Florida and Missouri malpractice cap challenges. Judges in other states have struck down such limits.
Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that a law limiting damages for pain and suffering was unconstitutional, for example. But in Texas on March 27, a federal judge ruled to uphold that state’s malpractice caps, which limit to $250,000 the amount that defendants can be ordered to pay for inflicting pain and suffering, emotional distress or loss of life.
Though damage caps can make it hard to hold accountable doctors who make egregious errors, Perdue advises people who are dissatisfied with care they’ve received not to give up right away, regardless of the outcomes of these cases.
Medical malpractice attorneys generally take on litigation against doctors and hospitals at no cost to the injured party, and can help you understand the damage caps in your state and to assess whether a lawsuit is the best course of action.
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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.
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