Facts in the Case
The case involves the birth of an infant at MyMichigan Medical Center-Midland, part of the University of Michigan Health System. The family claimed that labor and delivery staff failed to meet the standard of care during the infant’s delivery, resulting in severe, permanent disabilities.
At trial, the family’s attorney argued that fetal monitor readouts taken during labor showed that the infant was in distress. Plaintiffs traced that distress back to medication given to the infant’s mother, which caused excessive contractions that ultimately restricted the flow of oxygen to the infant. Plaintiffs also argued that the evidence of fetal distress apparent on the monitors necessitated an immediate cesarean section to protect the infant.
Despite this, plaintiffs argued, the medical staff at MyMichigan Medical Center-Midland failed to turn off the medication given to the parent or to perform the necessary cesearean section in time to prevent serious harm to the child.
The child, now four, has been diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, and a seizure disorder. At trial, the family’s lawyer drew connections between these conditions and the lack of oxygen the child suffered during the birthing process.
MyMichigan Health issued a statement expressing sympathy but disagreeing with the verdict.
Medical Malpractice Awards in Michigan
The $31.6 million award falls short of Michigan’s current medical malpractice verdict record, which stands at $135 million.
Michigan limits non-economic damages in medical malpractice and personal injury claims. The state sets two separate limits: one for cases that involve certain severe injuries, including like the plaintiff’s in this case, and one for cases that do not. Severe injury cases can seek the “upper cap” for non-economic damages; other cases can seek the lower cap.
The Michigan Department of Treasury updates these limits each year to account for inflation. In 2023, the upper cap for non-economic damages in medical malpractice claims was raised to $960,500 and the lower cap to $537,900.
In the MyMichigan Medical Center-Midland case, the bulk of the damages award focused not on non-economic damages but on the economic costs of the plaintiff’s severe, lifelong injuries. The child is expected to need lifelong specialized care in order to live a safe and healthy life with permanent brain injuries. The verdict reflects both the need for this care and its expected cost.
Key Considerations and Takeaways for Attorneys
Plaintiff’s attorneys noted that their case demonstrates that justice is not out of reach, even for families of limited means living in rural counties. To reach results like those in this case, however, injured plaintiffs need robust representation.
Expert witnesses are often essential in medical malpractice cases. When seeking experts, it is important to look not only for scientific or technical expertise but also an ability to put complex knowledge into simple terms for jurors. The ability to teach and tell a story from the stand can be extremely valuable in conveying complex medical or other topics to a lay audience.
One policy consideration to examine is the effect of non-economic damages caps in medical malpractice claims. Michigan’s $135 million record malpractice verdict pales in comparison to record verdicts in other states, which can reach into the billions.
Yet damages caps may attempt to solve one problem by exacerbating another. Some research suggests that states that cap medical malpractice awards see higher rates of injury and more severe injuries than states without caps. Limiting liability may prompt providers to take more risks - with more severe consequences.
In states like Michigan, establishing a medical malpractice plaintiff’s economic losses is essential. Focusing on future medical costs and losses can paint a clearer picture of the total economic loss. Here, the help of vocational and economics experts may be useful.