State Medical Malpractice Caps: Constitutional?

April 9, 2012

State courts around the country are considering the constitutionality of statutory damage caps in medical malpractice cases, sparking heated debates on both sides of the issue. Although the capped amount varies, a majority of states restrict damage awards in health care lawsuits. Proponents of tort reform argue that limiting excessive jury awards lowers medical malpractice insurance rates. However, our Illinois medical malpractice lawyers at Pintas & Mullins strongly advocate on behalf of injured patients and their loved ones. Based on our extensive malpractice experience, we firmly believe that the caps unfairly restrict the legal rights of victims harmed by instances of medical negligence.

The controversy surrounding the constitutionality of damage caps shows no sign of slowing down, with recent state court decisions producing varying results. In March 2012, a federal judge in Texas found that the state's non-economic damage cap is permissible under the U.S. Constitution. The family of former Dallas Cowboys star Ron Springs joined ten plaintiffs challenging the state's 2003 medical malpractice cap on pain and suffering-type awards. In a tragic case of medical negligence, Springs went to the hospital for a simple cyst removal and ended up in a coma for the last four years of his life. Springs and his family were forced to suffer incredible amounts of pain and suffering during this time, but the court ultimately decided to uphold the state's $250,000 damage cap.

Alternately, the Georgia Supreme Court recently overruled a similar state cap on malpractice awards. The court held that the $350,000 statutory cap for pain and suffering violated the right to a trial by jury. Juries are an essential function of our democracy and most state constitutions grant jurors the freedom to determine a fair amount of compensation for injured plaintiffs in a civil case. Restricting this constitutional guarantee does more harm than good, because it strips the rights of the jury and the rights of medical malpractice victims. After deducting the significant court costs that are typically associated with a medical negligence action, malpractice victims are left with very little to compensate for their pain, suffering, and extraordinary medical expenses.


The fate of other state medical liability caps is still hanging in the balance. The News-Leader.com is reporting on a challenge to the non-economic damage award cap that is currently before the Missouri Supreme Court. In 2009, the family of a boy born with cerebral palsy filed suit against the doctors who failed to act when the baby showed signs of fetal distress. The 5-year-old child now has the mental capacity of a 3-year-old and will never be able to walk. In 2011, a jury decided that the family should receive approximately $ 4.8 million in damages, with $1.45 million in the form of non-economic damages. Those damages were reduced to a mere $350,000, based on the restrictions imposed by the existing state damage cap. The victim's family argues that the law violates the constitutional right to a trial by jury, similar to the argument that proved successful in Georgia. Still, the direction of the decision remains to be seen, because there is no national trend on either side of the damage cap debate.

Until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of medical malpractice damage award caps, these decisions will continue to be made on a state-by-state basis, with inconsistent results. Our Chicago medical malpractice liability attorneys represent malpractice victims around the country, and we understand the significant emotional and financial costs associated with medical errors. Non-economic damage awards provide compensation for injured patients based on their pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and mental distress. Arbitrarily capping these awards unfairly limits access to our justice system and further victimizes injured parties and their loved ones.