California's noneconomic damages cap upheld

The appellate decision reduces a $6 million jury award to the state's limit of $250,000.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted Sept. 26, 2011

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The Court of Appeal of the State of California, 5th Appellate District, has upheld the state's $250,000 noneconomic damages cap, reaffirming what physicians nationwide consider the gold standard among tort reforms.

In its Sept. 1 opinion, the court said the cap was enacted on valid rationale and does not compromise citizens' rights.

"Our Supreme Court ... has already determined the constitutionality of [the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act], in which it concluded the statute does not violate equal protection rights because the Legislature rationally could conclude a medical malpractice crisis existed that required legislative intervention to reduce medical malpractice insurance costs, and that [MICRA] is rationally related to the cost-reduction goal," the court said.

The legal challenge stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Holly Stinnett against Modesto Surgical Associates and surgeon Tony Tam, MD, that alleged Dr. Tam's negligence led to Stanley Stinnett's death.

Stanley Stinnett was admitted to Memorial Medical Center of Modesto in January 2006 after he was injured in a motorcycle crash. After several days there, he went into respiratory arrest and his stomach filled with fluid, according to court documents. He later died.

Holly Stinnett, his wife, claimed that her husband died of aspiration of stomach contents resulting from Dr. Tam's failure to drain his stomach fluid. An autopsy report concluded that he died of heart failure.

Dr. Tam maintained no wrongdoing, saying his treatment of Stinnett was within the standard of care, court records show.

A jury found Dr. Tam and Modesto Surgical Associates negligent in Stinnett's care, awarding Holly Stinnett more than $1 million in economic damages and $6 million in noneconomic damages. The trial court approved Dr. Tam's request to reduce the award pursuant to California law. Holly Stinnett appealed. Memorial Medical Center of Modesto settled with her before trial.

At this article's deadline, attorneys for the plaintiff had not returned calls seeking comment.

Decision reaffirms law

The appeals court decision revalidates the tort reform measures in the state and provides firm objections to arguments against its legitimacy, said Alicia Wagnon, legal counsel for the California Medical Assn.

"I think this case ties in nicely the importance of the cap and of MICRA in general," she said. MICRA has focused on "reducing and stabilizing medical malpractice insurance costs so we can retain our doctors in California and ... provide the necessary care to citizens in California."

The $250,000 damages cap was part of the state's 1975 enactment of MICRA, a comprehensive tort reform package aimed at easing California's then-medical liability crisis. The law has faced numerous court challenges, including a 2009 lawsuit that went to the appellate level. In that case, judges found the cap constitutional, but the opinion was unpublished. That means it was binding for the plaintiff and defendants, but it could not be cited as case law in future cases.

The Stinnett case opinion is published, which Wagnon said provides a stronger shield for doctors against future challenges.

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External links

Holly Stinnett v. Tony Tam, the Court of Appeal of California, 5th Appellate District (link)

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The Litigation Center of the American Medical Association and the State Medical Societies submitted a joint friend-of-the-court brief in the Stinnett case in support of the damages cap. The brief said MICRA's noneconomic damages cap is constitutional and does not violate the right to a jury trial.

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