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Tide Turns Against Medical Malpractice Caps

by Sara B. Morgan

A Georgia trial judge recently struck down that state’s limits on the amount of pain and suffering damages a plaintiff can receive in a medical malpractice case. Fulton County State Court Judge Diane E. Bessen declared the caps violated Georgia’s State Constitution, specifically the provisions guaranteeing the right to a jury trial, separation of powers, and equal protection.

Currently, Georgia limits pain and suffering, known as noneconomic damages, to a maximum of $350,000 against doctors regardless of the injuries sustained by plaintiffs as a result of medical negligence. California, by comparison, limits those recoveries to a mere $250,000. Even where a jury determines the plaintiff is entitled to more than the limit, the judge is mandated by law to reduce that award. Judge Bessen found the caps to encroach upon the jury’s power to determine the amount of damages that would fairly compensate an injured person, who in turn is denied the opportunity for judicial review of the reduction.

Most importantly, Judge Bessen declared it a “complete contradiction to state that the overall quality of healthcare would be improved by shielding negligent health care providers from liability,” citing studies that correlate the existence of these damage limits with an increase in insurance rates.

Legal authorities in California are hopefully following this Georgia case closely, since California is another state where people injured by medical negligence have their damages reduced regardless of the amount a jury determines is appropriate compensation. California’s cap specifically applies to compensation for pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, and disfigurement, and limits recovery to only $250,000, even where someone has died.

The caps in California have been declared constitutional, based on the concept that high medical malpractice premiums adversely affect the quality of medical services provided to residents of the state. However, the effectiveness of the caps as a measure to improve the quality of medical services is highly debated, and rather unlikely. First, in light of the sweeping health care reform efforts taking place on the national scale, it can hardly be argued that California’s caps have resulted in the improvement of medical services. Secondly, the cap amount, set back in 1975, has long since surpassed its expiration date. And yet, 35 years later, Californians injured by negligent medical providers are subjected to the same caps enacted when Gerald Ford was President!

We can only hope that the developments in Georgia law serve as a catalyst to review the limits in California and to determine the best method available to improve the quality of care and protection afforded California residents. The time has come to stop protecting negligent medical providers, and start protecting Californians.

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