By Madison Hirneisen, THE CENTER SQUARE
May 23, 2022
(The Center Square) – Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law on Monday that raises limits on the amount of money patients can win in some medical malpractice cases, avoiding a likely ballot initiative in November.
Newsom signed Assembly Bill 35 on Monday, which increases existing caps for non-economic damages in medical negligence cases. Under existing law, the amount of money patients could win in these cases for non-economic damages was capped at $250,000.
Under the new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2023, the limit is increased to $350,000 for non-death cases and $500,000 for wrongful death cases. Over the next decade, there would be incremental increases to raise the limits to $750,000 for non-death cases and $1 million for wrongful death cases. A 2% annual inflationary adjustment would apply starting in 2034.
No groups opposed the measure as it wound its way through the Legislature. However, the Union of American Physicians and Dentists voiced opposition to the bill, saying it “would increase health care costs for working families while raising the cost of medical malpractice insurance premiums beyond that which most physicians in private practice and small groups simply can afford.”
Other opponents of the bill also voiced concern about the law increasing malpractice insurance rates for practicing doctors, dentists and other licensed medical professionals.
“MICRA was one of the rare medical regulations that was good in California,” Jeffrey I. Barke, M.D., co-founder Personal Concierge Physicians, said in an email to The Center Square. “This will further give docs on the fence a reason to move out of CA or retire early. But, this will certainly make the trial lawyers very happy."
Interest in reforming the state’s Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) has spanned decades, and Newsom’s signature on the AB 35 avoids what could have been a costly fight at the ballot box in November. An already-qualified ballot initiative proposed tying the limits to inflation, but proponents of the ballot initiative announced they withdrew the measure from the ballot as a result of Newsom’s signature.
“After decades of negotiations, legislators, patient groups, and medical professionals have reached a consensus that protects patients and the stability of our health care system,” Newsom said in a statement on Monday.
The law also makes changes to the contingency fees an attorney can collect when representing a person seeking damages in medical malpractice cases. Existing law places limits on how much an attorney can collect in contingency fees, but this new legislation “ties tiered fee limits to the stage of the representation at which the amount is recovered,” according to the governor’s office.
Scott Olsen, a board member for Consumer Watchdog and proponent of the ballot initiative, had agreed to withdraw the measure from the ballot if Newsom signed the bill into law before June 29.
Olsen, whose son was harmed by medical negligence in the 1990’s, said Monday that while “it is too late for my family to benefit from this change, at least others won’t have to endure the same suffering ours did three decades ago.”
“This historic agreement was only possible because so many families, like mine, decided to repeatedly stand up and demand change after the malpractice cap denied them justice,” Olsen said in a statement, according to a news release from Consumer Watchdog.
The bill won support from the majority of lawmakers in both chambers of the State Legislature, as well as more than 30 organizations that registered in support, including California Medical Association and the Consumer Attorneys of California. Both groups praised Newsom for signing the legislation on Monday.
“California’s new modernized MICRA statutes will provide predictability and affordability of medical liability insurance rates for decades to come, while protecting existing safeguards against skyrocketing health care costs,” California Medical Association President Robert E. Wailes, M.D. said in a statement.”
Madison Hirneisen is a staff reporter covering California for The Center Square. Madison has experience covering both local and national news. She currently resides in Southern California.