California Supreme Court To Review Constitutionality of Medical Malpractice Damages Cap

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SANTA MONICA, CA: The California Supreme Court said today it will review the constitutionality of the state’s arbitrary 39-year-old damages cap of $250,000 in medical malpractice cases in Hughes v. Pham. Last week, Consumer Watchdog wrote an amicus letter asking the Court to review Hughes and overturn this decades-old injustice.

Read the letter to the California Supreme Court here:

“Several states in recent years have determined that their own damages caps were unconstitutional and unjust – it’s time for California to join them,” said Pam Pressley, litigation director for Consumer Watchdog. “Families who have lost loved ones and victims of medical negligence deserve the justice and accountability that the damages cap denies.”

In March, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that state’s cap on medical negligence damages was unconstitutional. In its decision, the Court wrote: “At the present time, the cap on noneconomic damages serves no other purpose other than to arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members. …The statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages does not bear a rational relationship to the stated purpose that the cap is purported to address, the alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida.”

California’s cap on non-economic damages in medical negligence cases was enacted by the legislature in 1975, and in those 39 years has never been adjusted for inflation.

“Leondra Kruger, Governor Brown’s latest Supreme Court appointment, at 38 years old was not even born when the damage cap was enacted in California. We hope that she will bring a fresh perspective on malpractice victims’ rights considering that none of the conditions purporting to support enactment of the cap in 1975 exist today,” said Pressley.

Despite the promise made by supporters of the cap of lower malpractice insurance rates, medical malpractice insurance premiums continued to rise in the years following its enactment.

“By 1988, twelve years after the passage of MICRA, California medical malpractice premiums had reached an all-time high – 450% higher than 1975, when MICRA was enacted. During the mid 1980s, California malpractice insurance premiums increased by more than 20% annually,” stated Consumer Watchdog’s amicus letter.  “It wasn’t until voters took matters into their hands by adopting Proposition 103 and its strict regulation of insurance rates in 1988 that Californians began to see relief from excessive premiums. “

Consumer Watchdog wrote that “the opinion of the appellate court will leave millions of Californians and their families who have suffered from medical negligence without fair compensation despite the overwhelming evidence that [California’s 39-year-old cap on damages] lacks any rational basis under circumstances existing today.”

In Hughes v. Pham, Trent Hughes was injured while riding an all-terrain vehicle. However, this injury was made painfully permanent when the physician’s delay in treatment allowed Hughes’ injury to progress to a complete spinal cord injury. Trent Hughes lost sensation and motor function, sexual function, and bowel and bladder function. The jury found the doctor negligent and awarded Hughes $2,750,000 in noneconomic damages for his lifetime of pain and suffering as well as damages for his future medical bills and lost wages. As required under California’s 39-year-old cap on medical malpractice damages, the court then reduced Hughes’ noneconomic damages from $2.75 million to the maximum allowable of $250,000.

Editorial boards across the state have said that California’s damages cap makes it virtually impossible for children, seniors, and many other victims of medical negligence to seek justice. The Press Democrat wrote: “it’s almost impossible to bring a malpractice case in California unless a large amount of lost wages is at stake. That tends to leave out children, stay-at-home parents, low-wage workers and retired people.”

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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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