Nurse In Surgical Suite
20 April 2018

District Judge Strikes Down New Mexico Medical Malpractice Damages Cap

A District Court in New Mexico has struck down the State’s cap on medical malpractice damages, the Albuquerque Journal reports. Judge Victor Lopez, presiding in the 2nd Judicial District Court, says that limiting the available amount of non-economic damages to $60,000 is unconstitutional, as it violates a plaintiff’s right to secure “an unaltered jury verdict.”

New Mexico’s Broad Medical Malpractice Cap Faces Trouble

The majority of states currently have a malpractice damages cap in place, limiting to some extent the amount of compensation successful plaintiffs are allowed to receive. The caps generally kick in after a jury’s verdict has been rendered; jurors will award an amount in excess of the statutory limit, until a judge steps in to reduce the award in line with the state’s law.

Surgeon Standing Over Patient

New Mexico’s malpractice cap, the result of a 1976 amendment to the New Mexico Medical Malpractice Act, operates similarly in practice, but it’s far broader than the legal regimes imposed in other jurisdictions. Most states place caps solely on non-economic damages, a category that includes pain and suffering but doesn’t touch medical expenses, lost wages and other verifiable monetary losses.

$600,000 Limit To Most Compensatory Damages

New Mexico’s law reaches a substantially broader range of damages. In fact, the 1976 amendment to the State’s Medical Malpractice Act is notable more for what it leaves out than what it includes. Under current New Mexico law, the $600,000 malpractice cap applies to all forms of compensation¬†except damages for medical expenses and punitive damages, which are imposed to punish egregious behavior. In other words, New Mexico’s cap isn’t limited to non-economic damages; it also limits the available amount of compensation for verifiable monetary losses, including lost wages and lost earning potential.

District Judge Denounces Malpractice Cap As “Unconstitutional”

Those restrictions are just too broad, according to District Judge Victor Lopez. Ruling in the case of a woman who says she suffered severe injuries due to a botched gynecological surgery, Judge Lopez held that New Mexico’s State Legislature exceeded its constitutional authority in amending the State’s Medical Malpractice Act to restrict malpractice damages so harshly.

Limiting a broad range of malpractice compensation types to a maximum of $600,000 is unconstitutional, Judge Lopez writes, because it infringes on other constitutional rights, namely the right to a jury trial. In practice, New Mexico’s malpractice cap steps into arbitrarily alter the decisions made by jurors.

A 2011 push to raise the cap to $1 million was shot down by New Mexico’s Governor, Susana Martinez, who argued that increasing liability for doctors would lead to rising health care costs.

Doctors Say Law Makes New Mexico Attractive To Physicians

Current proponents of the malpractice cap take a similarly pragmatic line. Asked for comment in the wake of Judge Lopez’s opinion, Dr. Barbara McAneny, an obstetrician in Albuquerque soon to become president of the American Medical Association, called it “very alarming.” “We have a very difficult time in New Mexico attracting physicians to our state,” she said. “One of the things I have used when I try to recruit is that we have a very good and very rational medical malpractice law. If that changes, it will make it even more difficult to bring good physicians here.”

There’s certainly evidence that, compared to the nation, New Mexico’s physician workforce isn’t flourishing. The State ranks 31st in the country for active physicians per 100,000 people, according to statistics compiled by the Association of American Medical Colleges. It’s first, however, in active physicians who are 60 or older, but only 40th in enrolled medical students. An aging physician population, paired with low medical college enrollment, isn’t a recipe for a strong health care system in the future.

Should Lawmakers Be Given The Authority To Decide Damages?

In his opinion, Judge Lopez takes a more-principled approach to the question. It’s not a question of statistics or real-world incentives, the Judge suggests, but of the constitutional rights of patients in New Mexico.

As many critics of malpractice caps have noted, compensation amounts should be determined by jurors, not lawmakers in State capitals who have no way of understanding the specific facts at issue in any case. And malpractice caps are arbitrary, critics note, because they unfairly restrict the amount of available compensation for all malpractice plaintiffs, including those who have suffered the most severe and life-altering injuries.

Attorney Lisa Curtis picked up on this theme in her interview with the Albuquerque Journal. “If you’re talking about a plaintiff who dies as a result of medical malpractice in their 20s or 30s,” Curtis said, “a $600,000 cap isn’t even the equivalent of paying someone minimum wage.”

Ruling Needs Appellate Approval For Broad Applicability

Judge Lopez’s decision means that defendants in the case, obstetrician Dr. Rebecca Okun and Women’s Specialists of New Mexico, are obligated to pay the plaintiff $2.6 million in damages, the full amount of compensation awarded to her. The defendants have yet to announce whether or not they intend to appeal the decision, but until they do, Judge Lopez’s opinion will only apply to the case in which it was issued. An appeals court would need to uphold the Judge’s ruling for it to apply statewide, according to Lisa Curtis, an attorney who represented plaintiffs in the case.

 

 

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