In 1975, the California government established a maximum money amount injured patients could receive for noneconomic damages in malpractice lawsuits. Nearly four decades later, the $250,000 cap has yet to adjust to keep up with inflation. Medical malpractice lawyers at Pintas & Mullins explore how and why California advocates are now pushing to raise the cap.
Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit public advocacy group, is organizing the campaign to raise the damage cap among other changes, which its president believes will significantly impact patient safety for the better. In addition to raising the cap, proponents are also aiming to require doctors to undergo routine drug and alcohol testing.
If the initiative qualifies, this law change will be put to California voters in November 2014. The drug testing aspect of the law change is actually a major move - nationally, physicians are much less scrutinized for this type of impairment than other high-risk professions, like firefighters or police officers. We recently wrote a post on some particularly horrendous cases of surgical malpractice in Texas, which was likely caused by the physicians' addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs.
Why Malpractice Caps at All?
Currently, 35 states have some kind of law placing a maximum on the amount of noneconomic damages patients can recover in malpractice suits. California's cap, at $250,000, is toward the lower end, and prevents many patients from ever bringing claims against hospitals or doctors who injured them at all. The costs of expert testimony and continued litigation can add up quickly, and in many cases, the costs are far too great to make a lawsuit seem worth it, so the injury case is never pursued, and the patient is left without justification or compensation for their pain and suffering.
Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that these types of noneconomic damage caps were unconstitutional. In its decision, the court argued that the caps only protected doctors and hospitals from facing responsibility for medical negligence. They said damage caps are arbitrary, unfair, and hurt the most vulnerable patients. The justices concluded that noneconomic damage caps offended the "fundamental notion of equal justice under the law."
The initiative in California would raise the damage cap to $1.1 million and will make sure that number will be able to adjust to inflation. The law would also require doctors and nurses to check patients' prescription drug histories using a state database. This is meant to identify and monitor people who "doctor shop," looking to get different prescription medications to abuse.