West Sacramento billboard featuring an infant who died from whooping cough marks a formal declaration of war by groups targeting elimination of a cap on pain and suffering damages in medical negligence suits.
Bankrolled by trial lawyers, the billboard features Mia Chavez, a 6-week-old Los Angeles County child who died in July 2010, allegedly after a doctor examined her numerous times but failed to detect whooping cough in time to save her life.
"Medical Negligence Kills," reads the billboard on westbound lanes of Interstate 80 near Enterprise Boulevard. "But a 38-year-old law says Mia's life was worth only $250,000. Call your legislator."
"This is really all about patients and their allies declaring war on the lack of accountability for physicians and hospitals in this state," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group helping to lead the fight.
Consumer Attorneys of California, representing trial lawyers, paid $6,635 to install the billboard. It is part of a coalition committed to spending $1 million in pushing to eliminate the $250,000 cap, said Eric Bailey, spokesman for trial lawyers.
"This is just one element of a determined campoaign to change an unjust and discriminatory law," said Lea-Ann Tratten, the group's policy director, in a written statement about the billboard.
(Current law) is not fair to Mia and tens of thousands of other California patients victimized by medical negligence," Tratten said. "We are going to fight for justice on their behalf."
Lisa Maas, executive director of Californians Allied for Patient Protection, countered that the cap on pain-and-suffering was enacted for good reason – to curtail "out-of-control medical costs."
"We want to protect access to health care and we will continue to work to protect (the cap) in the Legislature," said Maas, whose group is a coalition of hospitals, health-care associations, local governments and other organizations.
Eliminating the cap would raise health-care costs statewide by many billions of dollars – just doubling it to $500,000, for example, would add at least $9.5 billion annually in expenses, the group's website contends.
Controversy has been brewing for years over the law, known as MICRA, an acronym for the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act.
If lawmakers opt not to alter the $250,000 cap for pain and suffering damages, an initiative will be circulated for the 2014 ballot, Court said.
Bob Pack, a Danville resident who helped co-found the Internet firm NetZero, has joined the fight against MICRA. His two young children, ages 10 and 7, were killed after being struck by a car in 2003 while walking to an ice cream store. The woman driver wrongly had been prescribed massive quantities of prescription drugs, Pack said.
California's cap on pain and suffering discourages victims from filing lawsuits that could have produced rulings that would become part of a doctor's record and possibly spark action by the medical board, Pack said.
"It's really a horrendous law that's far overdue to be overturned or adjusted for inflation," he said.
CAPP, the coalition supporting MICRA, contends that patients receive fair compensation. Only non-economic damages — pain and suffering — are capped, not lost wages, punitive damages, or past and future medical cost, the group notes.
PHOTO CREDIT: New West Sacramento billboard launches fight to overturn state law capping pain-and-suffering damages in medical negligence cases. Photo by Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group.