Caps in medical malpractice cases in doubt throughout US!

On April 2, 2010, Maryland's highest court heard arguments on whether a state cap on jury awards for pain and suffering is constitutional.  The limit on how much money a jury can award for pain and suffering, also known as non-economic damages, is under attack as unconstitutional in Maryland as it is in many other states that have caps on such damages.

The constitutional challenge stems from the death of a 5 year old in a swimming pool drowning on July 22, 2006.  After a jury trial the following year, the pool owner was found negligent by a jury for failing to adequate train and staff the pool with lifeguards, and the infant's parents were awarded $4 million. However, under the cap formula in Maryland, the award was reduced to just over $1 million. Restrictions on pain and suffering damages have long been a topic of dispute in Maryland.

The Maryland legislature established caps on non-economic damages about 25 years ago, and Maryland is one of at least 36 states that have established caps in at least some kinds of cases, such as medical malpractice, wrongful death or personal injury lawsuits.

Limits, or caps, on pain and suffering awards have been struck down as unconstitutional in some states.  This year, in Illinois and Georgia, the high courts of those states have overturned caps.  The constitutional challenge to caps is based on an equal protection argument. A injured victim whose award falls within the limit may collect the full judgment, but one who is awarded an amount exceeding the cap for having suffered severe harm--the death of a child, for example, or a life of physical pain--may not. Another argument against caps is that they deny injured victims the right to trial by jury guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In my view, the basic, constitutional right to a trial by jury is limited when the jury's decisonmaking is constrained by limits on how much it can award for pain and suffering. A jury's award of $4 million is reduced by the cap to $1 million based upon an arbitrary law that does not take into account the lifetime of pain and suffering that severely disabled children, such as victims of birth asphyxia, face.  The cap is grossly unfair to the severely disabled, who can only recover a fraction of the true value of their damages.

I wish the plaintiffs good fortune in overturning the limit on pain and suffering damages in Maryland.
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