On Monday, March 22, 2010, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state legislature cannot limit the amount of money juries can award to victims of medical malpractice. The ruling struck down a 2005 state law, championed by Republicans, that capped jury awards at $350,000 for the pain and suffering of malpractice victims. The court held that the cap improperly removed a jury’s fundamental role to determine the damages in a civil case. “The very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury,” and “‘clearly nullifies the jury’s findings of fact regarding damages and thereby undermines the jury’s basic function,” Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein wrote in the decision. The ruling was praised by victims’ rights groups and plaintiffs’ lawyers and was condemned by doctors and Republican lawmakers.
The New York Times reports that thirty states, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico place caps on jury awards in malpractice cases, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But since the late 1980s, such caps have been struck down by courts in New Hampshire, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and, most recently, last month in Illinois, according to the conference. “Different states are reaching different conclusions,” said Thomas A. Eaton, a law professor at the University of Georgia who specializes in civil damage cases.
In Georgia, the court’s decision arose from the case of a 71-year-old woman, Betty Nestlehutt, who was permanently disfigured after face-lift surgery. A jury awarded her and her husband $1.26 million in damages, including $900,000 for her pain and suffering. But under the cap, that would have been reduced to $115,000 for medical expenses and $350,000 for noneconomic damages. On Monday, the original award was reinstated.
Medical malpractice cases are among the most challenging and expensive cases undertaken by The Hamilton Firm and other trial lawyers. Now the courtroom doors are open again to victims of medical malpractice in Georgia, as the arbitrary caps eliminated all but the most outrageous cases from consideration. However, the fight is not over. The 2005 legislation that imposed the caps also granted virtual immunity to emergency rooms and their doctors, making them liable only for committing gross negligence in the treatment of emergency room patients. The Supreme Court upheld those provisions the preceding week. Only legislative action can change this grossly unjust law.