He was a surfer, doing what he loved best: riding the California waves. The swell was up that day in 2004 off Half Moon Bay, sending the board careening toward Paul Ethier, hitting him directly on the head. When the 29-year-old electrician managed to make his way out of the water, friends quickly carted him to the emergency room. A doctor sewed him up and sent him home with a prescription for pain medication. There, Ethier collapsed with a brain hemorrhage the doctor had failed to detect. After three nights in a coma, they disconnected him from life support.
His mother sang him lullabies as Ethier passed away.
Then the family sought justice for what seemed horribly substandard care. But the state’s 1975 law limiting medical malpractice damages stood in the way.
“Because of the cap we were lucky to get an attorney to take the case,” his mother says. The family learned that a simple X-ray would have demonstrated the extent of the damage. Plus, the ER doctor had a track record of similar cases with equally poor results.
The family pressed to trial, and a jury came back with an award of 3.1 million. But because of California’s damages cap, the judge later slashed the award to less than one-tenth of that. To the state of California, Paul Ethier’s life was worth just $250,000.