Limits on Malpractice Damages

Brooklyn Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein and other Democrats in the New York State Assembly defeated a proposal by Governor Andrew Cuomo to place a $250,000 cap on non-economic awards for medical malpractice, such as for pain and suffering,. Stating that the cap would work against the interests of women, the elderly, children and others with lower incomes who may have a claim for a grievous injury caused by medical professionals, Weinstien said “It hurts litigants who have a diminished quality of life for which they will not be compensated”. The NY Law Journal article State Assembly Rejects Cap on Med Mal Pain, Suffering has more on the legislative process to adopt limits on malpractice awards as part of the budget.

A task force formed by the governor, the Medicaid Reform Team, suggested the cap as one of a number of ways to address the state’s $15 billion-a-year Medicaid program. See the New York Law Journal article State Bar Blasts Proposal to Cap Medical Malpractice Awards. The governor included all the task force’s recommendations in his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year. Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, also opposed a cap on non-economic losses for pain and suffering, arguing that it would deprive deserving plaintiffs of their day in court.

Several state courts have abolished their medical malpractice caps, allowing injured patients to receive the full compensation that a judge or jury of their peers might award to them. Last year, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Lebron v. Gottlieb Memorial Hosp., 930 N.E.2d 895 (2010), that the a state cap law violated the state Constitution’s “separation of powers” clause because it took away power that should rest solely with judges. In Oliver v. Magnolia Clinic, 51 So.3d 874 (La. App. 3 Cir., 2010), a Louisiana state appeals court ruled the state’s limit on medical malpractice awards unconstitutional and included a review of case law showing that when courts have considered similar malpractice caps in response to state constitutional challenges by severely or catastrophically injured victims, they have been troubled by the disparate impact caps have on this group. See the ALR Annotation discussing statutory recovery caps by Carol A. Crocca, Validity, Construction, and Application of State Statutory Provisions Limiting Amount of Recovery in Medical Malpractice Claims, 26 A.L.R.5th 245 (2001) (password required).

As states grapple with budgetary crises, large medical malpractice awards will remain tempting targets for legislators and tort reform proponents. Courts will also continue to have a say on limiting claims. The Brooklyn Law School Library has in its NY collection Medical Malpractice in New York by Robert Devine (Call #KFN6028.M35 M43 2009) in its third edition.