Court ends long battle by upholding state liability cap

The ruling reaffirms the $250,000 noneconomic damages award limit that Kansas applies in medical liability lawsuits.

By — Posted Oct. 19, 2012

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After three years of waiting for a high court ruling, Kansas physicians are applauding a decision by the Kansas Supreme Court upholding the state’s $250,000 noneconomic damages cap in medical liability cases.

The decision strengthens the award limit and clears the uncertainty that has plagued health professionals since the cap first was challenged, said Jerry Slaughter, executive director of the Kansas Medical Society.

“Although we have had a previous decision that upheld the cap, there continued to be questions about whether that was a definitive decision,” he said. “This decision was quite comprehensive and answered any existing questions. [The ruling] should satisfy any doubts about the cap’s constitutionality.”

At this article’s deadline, attorney William Skepnek, who represented the plaintiff, had not returned messages seeking comment. In a statement issued Oct. 5, the Kansas Assn. for Justice, representing the state’s trial bar, expressed disappointment at the decision, saying damages caps impair plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

“The right to trial by jury is at the core of our democracy,” the association said. “Juries are in the best position to resolve disputes fairly because they are the conscience of the local community. We are hopeful that the Kansas Legislature will fully restore Kansans’ constitutional rights by repealing the ill-conceived noneconomic damage cap law.”

The case stems from a 2006 district court ruling that awarded $759,679 to a 28-year-old woman who had the wrong ovary removed during surgery. Obstetrician-gynecologist Carolyn Johnson, MD, acknowledged the mistake after a subsequent scan found the error, according to court documents. But Dr. Johnson argued that the patient’s preexisting medical conditions would have required eventual removal of both ovaries and her uterus. The patient, Amy Miller, later had the correct ovary removed.

Of the total award, $400,000 went toward noneconomic damages, which a judge lowered to $250,000 based on a state damages cap established in 1988. Miller appealed the reduction, contending the cap was unconstitutional.

The case was argued twice because of changes to the Kansas Supreme Court bench, including the death of Chief Justice Robert E. Davis and the recusal of Justice Eric S. Rosen. The state high court most recently heard arguments in February 2011.

In a 109-page opinion, the court said the noneconomic damages cap does not violate plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. Furthermore, the court said the limit long has been accepted by judges to carry a valid public interest objective (link).

In other states, courts have issued differing opinions on caps.

In August, the Supreme Court of Missouri threw out the state’s $350,000 noneconomic damages cap on medical lawsuits. In March, the Supreme Court of Louisiana reaffirmed that state’s $500,000 limit on total medical liability damages, declaring the cap constitutional. In 2011, the Court of Appeal of the State of California, 5th Appellate District, upheld the state’s $250,000 noneconomic damages cap.

Reaffirmation of the Kansas cap means that doctors there will continue to have a stable medical liability climate, Slaughter said. Since the cap was established, physicians have experienced reasonable liability insurance rates, and patients have had access to high-risk medical services, he said.

“We feel the ruling was extremely positive and will continue to make Kansas a really good place to practice medicine,” he said.

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