West Virginia high court upholds noneconomic damages cap

The $250,000 cap, which increases to $500,000 for certain injuries, was part of a 2003 tort reform package.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted July 4, 2011

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West Virginia's highest court has upheld the state's medical liability damages cap as constitutional in what experts call one of the most-watched cap challenges in the country.

The June 22 decision is a significant victory for physicians, who say the cap has led to a more stable medical liability environment, including lower insurance premiums and more doctors practicing in the state. The $250,000 noneconomic damages cap was part of a tort reform package approved by the West Virginia Legislature in 2003. The cap increases to $500,000 for certain injuries.

"The state Supreme Court has given its stamp of approval to the Legislature's effort to preserve access to quality, affordable health care in West Virginia," said John H. Schmidt III, MD, president of the West Virginia State Medical Assn. "The cap was the cornerstone to the reforms that have worked amazingly well for the patients we care for."

The case stems from a trial court ruling that gave $1 million to James MacDonald for a muscle condition he developed from medications prescribed by internist Sayeed Ahmed, MD, according to the lawsuit. Jurors awarded $500,000 to MacDonald's wife for disruption of marital relations. A trial judge cut MacDonald's award to $500,000. His wife's award was rendered null. The MacDonalds appealed.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia said the award limit in no way violates equal protection or other rights.

"Clearly, it is the province of the Legislature to determine socially and economically desirable policy and to determine whether a medical malpractice crisis exists. Equal protection is not a license for the courts to judge the wisdom, fairness or logic of legislative choices," the justices said.

The Center for Constitutional Litigation, a Washington, D.C., civil rights firm that represented the plaintiff, was "disappointed with the ruling, particularly because the court chose not to engage any of our arguments," said center President Robert Peck, who doesn't think the ruling will affect cap challenges elsewhere.

Evan Jenkins, WVSMA executive director, said, "The fact that our cap was such a strong cap at $250,000 will be a powerful precedent others can use to justify not only the enactment, but the upholding, of caps in other states."

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