Victims of Medical Malpractice Could Win More In Damages Under New Deal Reached By California Lawmaker

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April 27, 2022

Consumer advocates, physicians and legislative leaders announced a long-sought agreement Wednesday to rewrite change a 1975 California law that placed a $250,000 limit on damages for pain and suffering caused by medical malpractice.

The revision would not remove all limits on malpractice damages but would restore what they have lost through inflation. The $250,000 ceiling in the original law is worth about one-fifth as much today, said Craig Peters, president of Consumer Attorneys of California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also endorsed the plan, saying in a statement that it “strikes a fair balance between protecting patients, while ensuring that physicians and other medical professionals can treat patients without fear of financial ruin. This is an important victory for the stability and health of our health care system, and for patients across California.”

Peters said the proposed legislation, AB35 by Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes, D-Colton (San Bernardino County), has no known opposition, and supporters hope to send it to Newsom for his signature by the end of May. Backers of a proposed ballot initiative to overturn the 1975 law said they would drop it if AB35 was signed. A 2014 initiative that would have repealed the damages limit, and also required doctors to undergo drug and alcohol testing, was rejected by two-thirds of the state’s voters in 2014.

California’s Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, or MICRA, signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, was sponsored by medical groups that said it was needed to keep doctors from leaving the state for fear of being bankrupted by unlimited damage awards.

The law can have a drastic impact on individual cases. Two-year-old Steven Olsen of Chula Vista (San Diego County) slipped and fell on a walk with his family in 1992, was treated for a sinus injury by doctors who failed to detect other impacts, and wound up with lifelong brain damage and blindness, a consumer group said. A jury awarded him $7 million for pain and suffering, but it was reduced to $250,000 under MICRA.

Under the plan, endorsed by the California Medical Association and Consumer Attorneys of California, the new limits for non-economic damages in 2023 would be $350,000 for non-fatal medical malpractice by a physician and $500,000 for malpractice causing death. The maximum would be increased gradually over the next decade, to $750,000 for non-death cases and $1 million for fatal cases, and raised by 2% a year thereafter for inflation.

The limits would be increased in suits involving separate acts of malpractice by a doctor and other institutions, with total damages of up to $1.05 million next year and $2.25 million in 10 years in non-death cases, and higher caps in fatal cases.

“Times have changed, but MICRA hasn’t,” said Gómez Reyes, the bill’s author. “This year, the stakeholders representing patients and the medical community were determined to provide a balanced and equitable solution. They have succeeded.”

Dustin Corcoran, chief executive of the California Medical Association and leader of a planned campaign against the November ballot measure, said in a statement Wednesday that “this balanced proposal modernizes and updates MICRA while preserving its essential guardrails, strengthening provider protections and providing for fair compensation for injured patients.”

The California Hospital Association has also endorsed AB35, said Peters, president of Consumer Attorneys of California.

“After decades of impasse, we have finally reached an historic agreement with medical providers that finally updates California’s Medical Injury Compensation Act of 1975 to prioritize patients’ access to justice and quality health care,” he said.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood (Los Angeles County), and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, also praised the agreement.

“This is a great example of what can be accomplished when historically opposing sides talk with one another,” Rendon said.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter @BobEgelko

Consumer Watchdog
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