Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Georgia Supreme Court strikes down malpractice cap

On Monday, in a unanimous ruling, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down a state law that capped jury awards for noneconomic damages for victims of medical malpractice.  From the New York Times:
The ruling struck down a 2005 state law, championed by state Republicans, that capped jury awards at $350,000 for the pain and suffering of malpractice victims. The court held that the cap improperly removed a jury’s fundamental role to determine the damages in a civil case.

“The very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury,” Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein wrote in the decision.

The ruling was praised by victims’ rights groups and plaintiffs’ lawyers and was condemned by doctors and Republican lawmakers.

Thirty states, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico place caps on jury awards in malpractice cases, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But since the late 1980s, such caps have been struck down by courts in New Hampshire, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and, most recently, last month in Illinois, according to the conference.

“Different states are reaching different conclusions,” said Thomas A. Eaton, a law professor at the University of Georgia who specializes in civil damage cases. “There’s not necessarily a national trend.”

In Georgia, the court’s decision arose from the case of a 71-year-old woman, Betty Nestlehutt, who was permanently disfigured after face-lift surgery.

A jury awarded her and her husband $1.26 million in damages, including $900,000 for her pain and suffering. But under the cap, that would have been reduced to $115,000 for medical expenses and $350,000 for noneconomic damages. On Monday, the original award was reinstated.
The decision came a week after the state's highest court had upheld other parts of the malpractice legislation:
One ruling affirmed a provision that made it more difficult for patients to win medical malpractice cases involving emergency health care providers. The second upheld a provision that allowed one side in a lawsuit to pay the other side's legal fees -- a practice critics said would prevent many victims from bringing legitimate claims to court.
Click here for the court's ruling.

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