2 state court rulings rebuff challenges on liability caps

In Mississippi, judges rule a cap doesn’t infringe on the right to a trial. In Indiana, a plaintiff waited too long to challenge a cap.

By — Posted March 20, 2013

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Courts in two states so far this year have upheld medical liability damages caps.

A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 27 upheld Mississippi’s $1 million noneconomic damages cap in general liability cases. The ruling affirms the state’s $500,000 limit in medical liability cases.

In Indiana, the state Supreme Court on Jan. 15 left intact a $1.25 million damages cap, the limit for total damages in medical liability cases.

After 10 years of fighting legal challenges related to the cap in Mississippi, physicians in that state are pleased that the appeals court issued strong support for the cap’s constitutionality, said Steve Demetropoulos, MD, president of the Mississippi State Medical Assn.

“The 5th Circuit opinion is a tremendous victory for patients, physicians and tort reform in Mississippi,” he said in an email. “The court’s opinion is a common-sense approach supported by substantial case law.”

In the past year, courts have ruled in favor of caps in other states.

The Kansas Supreme Court in October 2012 upheld the state’s $250,000 noneconomic damages cap in medical liability cases. The Supreme Court of Louisiana in March 2012 reaffirmed that state’s $500,000 limit on total medical liability damages, declaring the cap constitutional.

But in August 2012, the Supreme Court of Missouri threw out the state’s $350,000 noneconomic damages cap on medical lawsuits.

The Mississippi ruling comes after the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2012 decided not to weigh the cap’s constitutionality. After hearing oral arguments and reviewing legal briefs, the high court on Aug. 23, 2012, declined to answer if the limit was fair. Justices said they didn’t have enough information to decide the limit’s validity.

The case stems not from a medical liability suit but from an automobile crash. A jury awarded Lisa Learmonth $4 million against Sears, Roebuck & Co., $2.2 million of which went toward noneconomic damages. She was seriously injured in an crash with a Sears-owned vehicle.

A judge reduced the award to $1 million in accordance with state law. Learmonth appealed, arguing that the damages cap violated the separation of powers doctrine and a plaintiff’s trial rights. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the question to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

After failing to decide the cap’s constitutionality, the state high court sent the case back to the appeals court. Appellate judges had the option of deciding the constitutionality question or sending the matter back to the trial court. In their opinion, the appeals judges said the cap does not infringe on a plaintiff’s right to a jury trial, nor does it violate the separation of powers doctrine (link).

R. Kevin Hamilton, Learmonth’s attorney, expressed disappointment at the decision, calling damages caps “the epitome of injustice.”

“The court chose to permit a legislative body, by statute, to trump the constitutionally guaranteed authority of jurors that dates back hundreds of years to both determine and award damages based on the evidence presented,” he said. “The ruling essentially leaves the form of the jury trial right intact, but it robs it of its substance.”

The ruling is the among several by federal appeals courts to uphold statutory caps on civil damages, said Frank Citera, a Sears attorney.

“In federal courts, the trend seems to be to uphold statutory limits,” he said. “… I think it certainly brings further clarity to federal courts.”

Patient death sparks Indiana suit

In the Indiana case, the state Supreme Court ruled that plaintiff Timothy Plank waited too long to raise his legal challenge to the state’s damages cap (link).

Plank sued Community Hospital in Indianapolis and its staff for negligence after the death of his wife, Debra Plank, in 2001. All of the doctors except one were dismissed from the case. Jurors found that the doctor was not negligent, but it ruled that the hospital was responsible.

Plank was awarded $8.5 million in damages, which was reduced to $1.25 million. But justices ruled Plank challenged the cap’s constitutionality too late because he did not immediately object when the award was reduced. He also failed to file a pretrial motion outlining his challenge and never made such a claim during the nearly two-week trial.

Although the decision leaves the state’s damages limit untouched, the court did not rule on the merits of the case, said Julie Reed, general counsel for the Indiana State Medical Assn. She said the medical association has heard of several challenges making their way through lower courts.

“Procedurally, we never got to the issue of the constitutionality of the act,” she said. “The court left open the possibility of a future constitutionality challenge to the medical malpractice act as long as it is filed timely.”

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