In a prior post we highlighted the failed legislative initiative in California to overturn the state’s cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. The current law, which was enacted by the legislature in 1975, limits the amount of money plaintiffs in med mal cases may be awarded by a jury to $250,000. In the nearly 40 years since the law was passed, this amount has not been adjusted…even for inflation.
California's law has likely been the impetus for similar laws by legislatures around the country, especially as jury awards for pain and suffering continued to rise in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In fact, it is arguable that states that did not have non-economic damages caps were more likely to lose physicians who were not able to pay the skyrocketing insurance costs ostensibly driven by the fear of large medical malpractice awards.
However, as more information comes forth indicating that tort reform does not actually lower medical costs, some states are re-thinking their caps on liability. For example, the Florida Supreme Court recently found that damages caps are unconstitutional. The court explained that such caps served no other purpose than to “arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members.”
Additionally, the California Supreme Court appears poised to examine damages caps by accepting the case of Hughes v. Pham, a case where a medical malpractice plaintiff was awarded $2.75 million in non-economic damages. But pursuant to statute, it was reduced to $250,000.
Of course, New York does not have caps on such damages, but it will be interesting to see if other states strike down their caps.