By Victoria Colliver, POLITICO PRO

April 27, 2022

California’s nearly 50-year-old medical malpractice compensation limits may soon be increased as part of a deal announced Wednesday that could end a decadeslong fight that’s pitted doctors and insurance companies against patients and families seeking justice in the courtroom for wrongful injuries or deaths.

The significance: The deal could take a November ballot measure to raise the cap off the table if the governor signs yet-to-be-introduced legislation before the California secretary of state’s June 29 deadline to remove an initiative from the November ballot.

It would also increase for the first time the maximum $250,000 limit on pain and suffering damages set by the California Legislature and then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 1975 as part of the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, or MICRA. That’s considered to be about $50,000 in today’s dollars.

Physicians and malpractice insurance companies contend the law, which does not restrict compensation for medical costs and other economic damages, helps hold down insurance costs and keeps doctors in the state. But patients and their loved ones have long argued the artificially low cap puts justice out of reach.

The deal: Once in effect, the deal would immediately raise the cap for non-economic damages in cases that don’t involve a death to $350,000, increasing over a 10-year period to a maximum of $750,000. In cases involving a death, the limit would immediately be increased to $500,000, scaling up to $1 million over years. The compensation includes a 2 percent cost of living increase annually after 10 years

Under the terms, injured patients and their families could receive the cap up to three times. That includes one cap if an institution was involved in the medical negligence and a second cap if a provider was involved. A third one could be awarded in the event an unaffiliated institution or provider committed a separate act of negligence. That could raise the total a survivor for a death could receive to up to $3 million after 10 years.

The legal statute of limitations of one year for adult victims and two years for children remains unchanged.

The initiative: Those numbers are lower than those proposed in the ballot measure, which would have raised the pain-and-suffering damages to about $1.2 million, but would allowed judges and juries to circumvent that cap in cases of catastrophic injury or death if deemed warranted. The measure, which qualified in 2020 but proponents opted to delay, has been primarily funded by a trial attorney and supported by Consumer Watchdog.

California voters in 2014 rejected an initiative to raise the cap to $1.1 million. But that measure, which was fiercely contested by physicians, included additional provisions such as mandatory drug testing for doctors.

What people are saying: Both sides are claiming victory. The deal avoids a protracted and expensive campaign to revamp a law that’s proven difficult to change but many argue is long overdue.

“CAOC has fought tirelessly alongside thousands of injured patients for the last fifty years to make sure they are fairly compensated when their rights have been violated,” said Craig M. Peters, president of Consumer Attorneys of California, in a statement Wednesday. He added: “We look forward to working with Governor Newsom and legislative leaders in the coming weeks to expedite the passage of this landmark reform.”