Some jury awards for physician negligence may survive caps

In Maryland, there is a cap on the amount of non-economic damages that a plaintiff can collect in a medical malpractice case. The non-economic part of a jury's award is for pain and suffering, loss of life's pleasures, and loss of consortium. The cap is $740,000 for 2014, and is statutorily set to increase each year by $15,000, presumably to cover inflation. The question arises whether someone suffering catastrophic injuries from physician negligence should have to be restricted by the statutory cap, especially where a jury has awarded her an amount that far exceeds it.

In a case in another state with a cap similar to Maryland's, a jury awarded a woman who lost all of her limbs due to medical malpractice the amount of $25.3 million. The defendants argued to the trial judge that the non-economic part of the verdict, which was for $16.5 million, should be reduced to that state's cap, which is $750,000. The woman had lost her limbs when the doctors failed to diagnose her infection, which led to septic shock.

The economic damages, which are not capped, include past, present, and future medical expenses, loss of employment income, and loss of earning capacity for the remainder of the patient's life. It is not entirely clear why the Wisconsin state judge found that the malpractice cap was unconstitutional with respect to this plaintiff but at the same time constitutional in most other cases. Apparently, the court reasoned that applying the cap to an injury of such horrendous magnitude was lacking in any rational basis, and worked a fundamental injustice of constitutional proportions.

Thus, the statutory provision was declared constitutional, except where physician negligence causes devastating injuries. The decision is likely to be appealed and ultimately decided by the state's highest appellate court. Here in Maryland, it's a reasonable possibility that the courts would carve an exception from the caps for extremely horrific injuries.

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