Non-Economic Damage Cap Deemed Unconstitutional by Another State Supreme Court

Florida has recently joined seven other states in finding that non-economic damage caps in medical malpractice cases are unconstitutional. The case, Estate of McCall v. United States,, stemmed from the death of a young woman who died shortly after childbirth.
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The finding is important because, while North Carolina has had non-economic damage caps in place since 2001, there has yet to be a constitutional challenge on the issue here. The more states follow this precedent, the more likely we are to see a similar outcome.

Charlotte personal injury lawyers know that part of the reason we have non-economic damage caps stems from a major push by health care lobbyists in the late 1990s and early 2000s for tort reform. Doctors would be driven from states in droves, they said, unless legislators could enact reforms to bring the cost of medical malpractice insurance down. One of the best ways to do this, they asserted, was to cap the amount of damages plaintiffs could collect for serious injuries or wrongful death.

In North Carolina, N.C.G.S.S. 90-21.19 details the non-economic damages cap that was enacted here. In medical malpractice cases, plaintiffs can receive a maximum of $500,000, except when the defendant’s actions are deemed grossly negligent, fraudulent, reckless, intentional or committed with malice and caused disfigurement, loss of use of a body part, permanent injury or death. Not many cases meet the criteria to be granted an exception to the cap.

However, as the justices in the McCall case pointed out, the primary goal of those lobbyists has not been met with the passage of these caps. Specifically, the justices indicated, the cap on wrongful death non-economic damages “does not bear a rational relationship to the stated purpose that the cap is purported to address. It has amounted to modest savings for doctors and insurance firms, while having a devastating impact to those who are the most grievously impacted, the court found.

But beyond that, it violates patients’ constitutional protections under the equal protection clause. Specifically, “It imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants” because of the “arbitrary” liability limits.

In the McCall case, a young mother died after suffering from preeclampsia and delivering a child, during which she lost an enormous amount of blood. Her family sued the doctor and hospital, and a jury awarded them $2 million in non-economic damages. However, the judge was forced to slash this award in half, per the statutory cap. Although this case was filed in federal court, the question of damage caps was certified to the state supreme court on appeal.

In a 96-page opinion, the court struck down non-economic damage caps in that state.

In all, there are 14 states that have no damages cap. In 29 states, there are caps, but constitutionality has only been challenged and upheld in 17 of those states. In eight states, now including Florida, these caps have been deemed unconstitutional.

Contact the North Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Estate of McCall v. United States, March 13, 2014, Florida Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
“Error in Judgment” Jury Charge in Medical Malpractice Cases, Feb. 27, 2014, Charlotte Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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