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Another Win for the Negligent Doctor

Since at least 1975 and the formation of the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), medical malpractice laws have been greatly slanted in favor of the offending doctor.

Due to things such as the cap on general damages ($250,000 set in 1975 and never adjusted for inflation), very short time limits for the commencement of an action (generally only 1 year), and statutorily set attorney fees, it is very hard for injured plaintiffs to find an attorney willing to take a medical malpractice case. Further, case law since its inception has only acted to broaden the scope of MICRA making cases less and less practical to pursue each year. It’s tough out there for someone who has been wronged by a medical professional. A recent case only makes it more difficult.

The case is Cuevas v. Contra Costa County 2017 Cal App. LEXIS 390. The plaintiff, Brian Cuevas, is an infant whom was born with severe brain damage due to the negligence of his mother’s doctor, Theresa Madrigal. He will be dependent on the care of others for the rest of his life.

The jury found in his favor and awarded him $9,577,000 as the present cash value of his future medical care and rehabilitation care expenses. This number was only a fraction of the $29 million present cash value amount calculated by plaintiff’s experts and requested at trial by plaintiff. Defendant argued that plaintiff’s future medical expenses should only be $3.2 million.  As a result, when the jury returned a verdict for $9.5 million, defendants promptly appealed the ruling.

Defendant argued, on appeal, that because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”), it should have been allowed to tell the jury that the plaintiff’s future medical needs would be largely provided for by Obamacare and are thus valued much lower than the $9.5 million awarded. The trial court had barred any mention of the ACA by defendants at the time of trial as being inadmissible evidence of a collateral source.

The Appellate Court reversed, finding that Civil Code § 3333.1 permits the introduction of evidence regarding future as well as past medical benefits. The Appellate Court determined that the trial court’s decision to exclude evidence of future insurance benefits that might be available under the ACA on the basis that the ACA may be unlikely to be in existence in the future was an abuse of discretion. Thus, it was error for the jury not to consider that some of the plaintiff’s future medical care may be covered, in part, by Obamacare. The Appellate Court reversed the judgment, remanding it for new trial on the amount of plaintiff’s future medical damages – such that a jury may consider Obamacare and its effect in diminishing the value of plaintiff’s future damages.

Thus, another win for the negligent doctor. Though the jury’s verdict was well below the amount calculated by plaintiff’s experts (by $20 million), the Court found that the jury should also take into account that Obamacare may provide services (at taxpayer expense) for the plaintiff in the future. This taxpayer burden should be to the benefit of the doctor, reducing the judgment owed by her (insurance) for the lifetime of treatment she inflicted upon him – remember, the value of Brian Cuevas’ lifetime of pain and suffering  is capped at $250,000.00 under MICRA.

It’s getting more and more difficult to pursue a medical malpractice case in California – this case just adds to the list of reasons why. Due to MICRA and surrounding case law, juries may be prevented from awarding an amount that the jury feels is fair. The attorney is prevented from contracting for a price that she feels is fair.

Practically speaking, fewer attorneys are willing to take medical malpractice cases and MICRA has emboldened malpractice insurance carriers to take cases all the way to trial, instead of settling the cases, because their potential exposure is capped. As a result, this significantly increases the cost of litigation for plaintiffs. All of this results in the prevention of people who have legitimate, but smaller, malpractice complaints from ever finding an attorney – thus effectively limiting many victims’ access to the courts.

Mr. Serrano has been admitted to practice before California State and Federal Courts. He was named to the Super Lawyers’ 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 Southern California Rising Stars List, an honor awarded to no more than 2.5% of attorneys in Southern California each year. View Attorney Jean-Simon Serrano's Attorney Bio Here.

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