In early 2011 the Georgia Supreme Court recently struck down damage caps in medical malpractice cases that place an arbitrary limit on awards for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering and diminished enjoyment of life.
The decision is just one of a wave of decisions rolling back “tort reform measures” that had been championed by insurance carriers, business associations and medical professionals. A recent case from Florida emphasizes the harmful impact of damage caps in personal injury lawsuits involving permanently debilitating and life-altering injuries.
A jury award of $19.2 million in a Florida case involving an infant who suffered cerebral palsy, cortical blindness and spastic quadriplegia is likely to be reduced to a mere $200,000 because of a damage cap in claims against government owned hospitals with sovereign immunity. The infant will be permanently disabled and developmentally delayed for the rest of her life. She will need lifelong care, so $200,000 will not begin to pay for her medical expenses let alone begin to compensate her for the lifelong pain and suffering and diminished quality of life associated with her severe debilitating injuries.
What makes this case even more tragic is that the infant’s injuries were apparently caused by an error in dosage of nutrients that was given the child. Kiarra Smith was born pre-mature at just 25 weeks and was given a combination of nutrients and trace elements that is frequently given to infants born prematurely. However, according to testimony she was given a dose a hundred times greater than the appropriate dose. The amount she received was equivalent to what would be appropriate for an adult weighing 160 pounds. The injection caused her to suffer pulmonary and cardiac arrest during a thirteen minute period as resuscitation efforts were employed.
Because the hospital was aware of the damage caps, they did not even make a token settlement offer prior to or during trial. Even more appalling, the treating physicians provided the key testimony that convinced the jury that the error in the dosage caused the infant’s injuries. The jury took only four hours to return a verdict of $19.2 million, which included $5.2 million in economic damages and $14 million in pain and suffering. The family is seeking to have the $200,000 cap lifted in this case but it is unclear whether the child will actually receive more than the cap.
This type of case is a tragic example of the injustice that can be created by caps on damages. The Georgia Supreme Court decision striking down caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice caps can prevent injustices like this one. Even where a defendant knows that liability is clear, a wrongdoer can choose to not make any offer to reach a fair settlement where caps protect the defendant from reasonable damages. It can even be difficult to find legal representation in such cases because the limit on damages can make it economically unfeasible to pursue the case.