PATIENT DUMPING: Subject to Malpractice Caps, Says State High Court
The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that the state's cap on malpractice awards applies when hospitals violate federal laws against patient dumping. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the court "upheld a decision to slash a $1.35 million verdict down to $250,000" in the case for Mychelle Williams, who died after treatment for a bacterial infection was delayed so she could be treated at a hospital affiliated with Kaiser Permanente (Chiang, 3/26). The court determined that the patient dumping violation involved "professional negligence," and therefore fell under the state's $250,000 malpractice cap. Writing for the court, Justice Stanley Mosk said a patient dumping claim "based on failure to provide medically reasonable treatment to stabilize a patient, would, if brought under state law, constitute a claim of professional negligence." In a separate opinion, Justices Marvin Baxter and Ming Chin said "they believed the malpractice cap should be applied to all patient dumping cases."
The Los Angeles Times reports that the decision is "important because it comes at a time when patient advocates say that transfers of unstable patients have been growing dramatically with managed care." Arguing that Williams died "not because a doctor didn't know what to do, but because of her health insurance status," Kenneth Sigelman, a lawyer for Michelle's mother, "complained that the ruling makes the 1986 anti-dumping law moot in California." Consumers for Quality Care's Jamie Court said the ruling sets a "very dangerous precedent for patients ... who deserve the right to be treated when it is not safe to transport them." Plaintiff's lawyer Sharin Arkin "praised the decision for upholding state legislators' efforts to curb health costs" (Dolan, 3/26).