California’s 45-Year-Old Limits on Patient Rights Must Be Updated

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In 1975, the legislature placed a series of limits on injured patients’ legal rights. Most prominent among the law’s restrictions was a $250,000 cap on non-economic or quality of life compensation for patients harmed by medical negligence.

The cost of bringing a medical negligence case has increased over the last 45 years, but the cap has not. Forty-five years after it was enacted, the cap has never been adjusted for inflation. It is worth less than $50,000 today. This prevents many patients from ever getting justice, and deepens the inequalities in the justice system.

The 45-year-old cap can harm any Californian, but it has a disparate impact on people who are already disadvantaged by systemic injustice. The cap disproportionately harms:

  • Low-income patients – by making economic status a determining factor in whether a person can be compensated for medical negligence.

  • People of color – who are more likely to receive a lower standard of medical care and are subjected to high rates of preventable medical errors, regardless of income or educational attainment.

  • Children and retirees – whose lives the cap devalues because they are not wage- earners.

  • Women – who earn less on average than men, and are more likely to suffer harm that is subject to the cap, such as reproductive harm or the loss of a pregnancy.

The cap has devastated patient safety and physician accountability in California:

  • It closes the courtroom door for patients harmed by medical negligence by preventing them from finding an attorney.

  • It pushes the cost of medical negligence onto society by requiring public programs or private insurance to pick up the tab for a wrongdoer’s negligence.

  • It makes health care less safe by letting medical providers off the hook when they negligently cause patients’ injury or death.

State oversight of doctors by the Medical Board did not fill the accountability gap. Negligent doctors who repeatedly harm or even kill their patients continue practicing with impunity.

California is 1 of just 3 states with a cap as low as $250,000 with no exceptions. 20 states and the District of Columbia have no caps at all.

After 45 years, it’s time to adjust the cap on compensation for medical negligence victims to correct this systemic injustice and make healthcare safer in California.

Carmen Balber
Carmen Balber
Consumer Watchdog executive director Carmen Balber has been with the organization for nearly two decades. She spent four years directing the group’s Washington, D.C. office where she advocated for key health insurance market reforms that were ultimately enacted into law as part of the Affordable Care Act.

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