Sousa v. Prime Healthcare Services-Garden City Hospital
In 2002, Dominic Sousa was playing on a trampoline when he broke his arm. At the Children’s Hospital, a Michigan doctor on a training rotation in New Orleans set Sousa’s injured arm in a cast. Unfortunately, it began to swell uncontrollably soon after. By the time the cast was removed days later, Sousa had suffered permanent muscle and nerve damage. His family sued the parent company on his behalf to recover the costs of his life-altering injuries.
At the conclusion of the trial, the jury unanimously agreed on a $10 million dollar damage award. However, because the physician was not properly registered under the state’s medical malpractice act, the state-mandated cap to reduce the award to $500,000 could not be applied. While an appeal is likely, the question that remains is whether this cap serves justice or a hindrance.
State Mandated Caps: Justice or Hindrance?
In the world of trial litigation, state-mandated caps on damage awards are a source of debate among trial attorneys. Currently, about half of the states in the county have capped non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. California presently has a $250,000 cap amount. Overall, the majority of the state laws place the cap on non-economic damages only including pain and suffering and punitive damages.
However, states such as Louisiana have placed a full umbrella cap on forms of damages in medical malpractice cases. For patients with career-ending injuries who face years of long-term medical costs, such caps are problematic. Not all caps are always an absolute certainty, however—even in Louisiana.
In the present matter, Louisiana’s state-mandated cap is based on the concept of providing a patient compensation fund to cover such malpractice claims. It is unknown why the doctor who treated Sousa did not properly register under the state’s medical malpractice act. Beginning in the 1970s, patient funds and caps were part of a new trend in reforms. The purpose was to prevent spiraling insurance costs which resulted in doctors moving to other states. Also, certain medical specialties with higher rates of malpractice were also leaving states causing a shortage of qualified medical professionals.
Patient compensation funds with caps are applied regardless of how many plaintiffs bring a case each year in a state. Medical costs are not capped, though any future medical costs are paid as they are incurred and can be contested by the provider.
Arguments have been made that uncapped medical malpractice awards cause providers to practice “defensive medicine”. Medical professionals would rather order unnecessary tests or procedures to avoid being sued later. In turn, the idea is this defensive posture drives up healthcare costs as doctors prefer to take no chances.
No Inflation Adjustments
Many of these state funds and caps have not been adjusted for inflation since the 1970s when they were first enacted. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, $500,000 in 1974 is equivalent to $2.8 million today. In terms of covering medical costs, $500,000 does not get far in terms of lifetime treatment. The costs of medications, treatments, and the use of medical facilities can easily run into the millions in less than a decade.
Caps are facing more challenges in the modern era. The highest courts in several states are continually ruling that malpractice caps are unconstitutional. States with larger populations are no exception to this continual trend. In 2017, Florida’s Supreme Court found there was no evidence of an ongoing medical malpractice crisis to justify an arbitrary cap. Caps are supposed to serve an additional purpose of diminishing the filings of frivolous lawsuits. However, there is a strong argument it only serves to punish a select few. The select few are the plaintiffs whose injuries necessitate lifelong medical care.
Are Caps Still Necessary Today?
The argument still remains that caps prevent higher costs from reaching other people. The rationale is that any high award only increases fees given to the public when a medical professional or organization charges more. However, this is debatable in situations dealing with catastrophic injuries. It is important to ensure that research as to the best approach for determining damages is done in such difficult cases. Selecting the most appropriate expert can impact a plaintiff’s ability to receive lifelong care.