Los Angeles Times Examines Effect of State Cap on Damages in Medical Malpractice Lawsuits
The Los Angeles Times on Sunday examined the effect of California's $250,000 cap on noneconomic damage awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, a law that is starting to come "under increasing fire." The 1975 law is credited with keeping medical malpractice insurance rate increases at less than half the national average over the past 20 years, and President Bush, among others, has called the state's malpractice law a national model for tort reform.
However, the cap has not been adjusted for inflation over that time, and health insurers say there has been no reduction in malpractice suits since the cap was implemented. The cap would have risen to $882,000 by this year if it were adjusted for inflation. According to the Times, "many lawyers say they routinely turn away malpractice cases" because the high cost of taking a complex malpractice case to trial can result in lawyers earning as little as $50,000 -- "not nearly enough to justify the many hours such a case requires."
In addition, a recent RAND study found that 45% of malpractice cases in the state that went to trial ended with judges reducing noneconomic damages awarded by juries. Juries, who are not told of the cap, awarded an average of $800,000 per case from 1995 to 1999, according to the study.
The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights says the state's low malpractice insurance rates are the result of legal challenges to requested premium rate increases, and the group is considering sponsoring a ballot initiative to repeal the cap on noneconomic damages.
Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Concord) said he is drafting legislation that would increase the cap to $900,000. "That cap, at $250,000, is outdated by over a quarter of a century," Torlakson said, adding, "It's not only unfair, but it doesn't provide the level of deterrence or accountability that I think should be there."
Howard Mandel, a Los Angeles obstetrician-gynecologist, said state doctors are still wary of malpractice suits because of rising economic damages, which are not capped in the state. Mandel added, "You don't want to be in a situation where an emergency room doctor taking care of you is unhappy because they are afraid they are going to get sued. The money we're wasting to protect our backsides could be spent" providing more charity care (Girion, Los Angeles Times, 8/1).