Over half of states impose caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. There have been many reasons given for these caps. The main reasons offered by proponents are that caps prevent frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits and avoid runaway jury verdicts. Our course, all right-minded Americans would agree frivolous lawsuits should never be filed. They are a waste of time, money and resources. Likewise, all right-minded Americans would agree that excessive jury verdicts should never be awarded. They are unfair and unjust. However, as a recent Colorado jury verdict shows, some states have gone too far in the name of preventing frivolous and excessive jury verdicts--and in doing so--have punished those with most meritorious cases.
Several years ago, 36 year old Jason Walters went to a Denver emergency room complaining of severe neck pain with numbness radiating down his arms and legs. In the emergency room, Dr. Mark James diagnosed Walters with a neck strain and sent him home. In reality, Walters had a significant herniated disc compressing on his spinal cord causing progressively severe neurologic deficits. While at home later that day, Walters became completely paralyzed. When he was taken back to the emergency room, he was left alone, without treatment, for two hours before anyone attended to his paralysis. By the time Walters received medical treatment, it was too late. Jason Walter's paralysis became permanent, meaning he will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Walters filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Dr. James and Memorial Health System. When they were unable to reach a settlement, the case proceeded to trial. There, the jury heard expert testimony from both the plaintiff and defense. Ultimately, the jury found in favor of Mr. Walters, awarding him $10 million in non-economic damages and $5 million for medical expenses.
Unfortunately, Mr. Walters will never receive the $10 million verdict awarded to him by a jury of his peers. He will never receive anything close to that. Under Colorado law, there is a $300,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. Non-economic damages are damages for things like pain and suffering, disfigurement and loss of a normal life, rather than economic damages like medical expenses or lost wages. Thus, Walters, who will never be able to walk again, will only receive $300,000.
Because of the Colorado legislature's decision to impose caps on medical malpractice damages, Mr. Walters will get his medical bills paid and $300,000 for his trouble. Had Mr. Walters become paralyzed from being hit by a truck or injured by a dangerous product, his damages would not be limited. However, because he was injured by a doctor, he gets no more than $300,000. According to the Colorado legislature, a fellow citizen's ability to walk, jog, or run, the things most of take for granted, is worth $300,000--and not a penny more. However, is there a single legislator, who voted for this bill, that would find this result fair if they were the one paralyzed?
Denver Post, Jury Returns Largest Medical Malpractice Verdict In Colorado History, August 1, 2012.