Medical Malpractice Damages- Should They Be Limited?

by Burt M. Kahn
May 19th, 2016

On March 21, 2016, the American Bar Association formally announced its opposition to a proposed bill in Congress that would limit the amount of noneconomic damages that can be awarded by judges and juries in medical liability cases in state courts across the nation.  In a letter to the chairman and ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee, the ABA said that the bill, which would cap those damages at $250,000, violates principles of federalism and would deprive many deserving people of the chance to receive compensation for their injuries.

First, the ABA noted that for more than 200 years, “the authority to determine medical liability law has rested in the states” and that each state has always had autonomy to write its own laws on the subject. “Congress should not substitute its judgment” now for the varying systems that the states have evolved, the letter said. The bill, known as the Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-cost, Timely Healthcare (HEALTH) Act of 2016, would do just that, according to the letter.

In addition, the ABA letter emphasized that “research has shown that caps diminish access to the courts for low-wage earners, like the elderly, children, and women; if economic damages are minor and noneconomic damages are capped, attorneys are less likely to represent these potential plaintiffs.” In other words, the bill would have the effect of denying many people access to the courts.

The letter noted that “patients who reside in communities around the country should not be told that, due to an arbitrary limit set by members of Congress in Washington, DC, they will be deprived of the compensation determined by a fair and impartial jury.”  Courts already have the power to set aside excessive verdicts, and that is the correct solution to the problem of excessive verdicts, if a problem arises.

We wholeheartedly agree with the ABA’s position. A recent study (may 2016 British Journal of Medicine) showed that medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States, just behind heart disease and cancer! Clearly medical negligence can have devastating and permanent consequences. Many times the only recourse for someone who is seriously injured as a result of an avoidable medical injury is the pursuit of a court case. Additionally medical negligence suits expose medical errors, thereby forcing Healthcare Provider providers and their insurers to enact measures that improve the quality of health care.

By driving down the size of awards, this bill would act as a deterrent to bringing medical negligence suits given their high cost. If the verdicts go down and the costs remain the same less victims will have access to the Courts. This, after all is the real intent behind the bill.

Thus this bill will harm those who are injured and would make the nation and its courts less fair and less just. It would also harm the ability to expose medical errors and this hinder the improvement of the quality of health care.

Burt M. Kahn is the firm’s managing director and a trial lawyer with deep experience in helping victims and their families obtain justice in complex medical malpractice matters and other avoidable accidents that result in life-changing injuries or wrongful death. Over the past four decades, Burt has distinguished himself as the leading litigator in the D.C. area in tragic cases involving the intersection of law and medicine where a victim’s life has been forever devastated by severe injuries or taken unnecessarily as the result of negligence committed by doctors, nurses and hospitals.

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