West Virginia Malpractice Award Caps Challenged

Ann W. Latner, JD November 15, 2010 A couple was awarded over $1.5 million in medical malpractice damages, only to have the award reduced to a third because of a state law that caps medical malpractice damages. James MacDonald developed rhabdomyolysis after being given a combination of medications at a West Virginia hospital. He and his wife sued, and the trial went before a jury. The jury awarded the couple $1.5 million for pain and suffering and $129,000 for medical expenses and lost wages. In 1986, West Virginia enacted a cap on pain and suffering awards in malpractice cases. The cap was originally set at $1 million, but was later reduced to $250,000 for most cases, and $500,000 for the most severe. Additionally, the cap applies no matter how many plaintiffs there are, so multiple plaintiffs have to split the award, which can be no more than $500,000. Although MacDonald was awarded $1 million for pain and suffering, and his wife was awarded another $500,000, their award was reduced to $500,000 for both of them. The MacDonalds are arguing that the law capping damages is unconstitutional, because it interferes with the right to a trial by jury and prevents the jury from making the ultimate decision in the case. The MacDonald’s case has been appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court. Earlier this year, Illinois and Georgia declared similar caps unconstitutional. Lobbyists representing physicians and insurance groups have filed a supporting brief arguing that the caps should remain in place in order to keep malpractice insurance rates affordable and to prevent physicians from leaving the state.

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