Debate Continues over Success of California’s Medical Malpractice Caps Law
As state and federal officials look to California's law that caps damage awards in malpractice cases as a model for change, the "debate still rages" over whether the law is effective, the Los Angeles Times reports. The California law, passed in 1975, includes a cap of $250,000 for damages related to "pain and suffering" and limits on patients' attorney fees. With several states facing malpractice insurance premium increases of 50% to 80%, doctors, insurers and lawmakers are "clamoring" for legislation similar to California's law. Last month, President Bush called on Congress to pass legislation that would limit medical malpractice awards, similar to the caps mandated by the California law, but that measure has stalled in the Senate. Supporters of California's law say it has "kept premiums in check" and prevented doctors and insurers from leaving the state. In addition, malpractice premiums for physicians in Los Angeles and San Francisco are typically lower than those in other large cities nationwide.
California trial lawyers, however, say that "patients lose out" under the law. Lawyers say that the only way to win a "substantial" award is to prove "heavy economic losses" from the damage, "penaliz[ing]" stay-at-home mothers, retirees, children and others with limited incomes. Lawyers also say the caps have precluded them from accepting "all but the most clear-cut cases." Because lawyers must spend "tens of thousands" to prepare for trial, the risk is not worth the reward, lawyers maintain. Further, critics of the law say the $250,000 cap for pain and suffering damages was established in 1975 and has not been adjusted for inflation. If it were adjusted, the cap would now be $838,926. Meanwhile, independent experts examining California's law say the "jury is still out" on its effectiveness. Mimi Marchev, a senior policy analyst for the National Academy for State Health Policy, said, "The data are inconclusive. And you don't go passing more tort reform before somebody looks at whether it does any good" (Ornstein, Los Angeles Times, 8/3). NPR's "All Things Considered" reported last Friday on the state's malpractice claims. The full segment is available in RealPlayer Audio online.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.