Medical Association praises court decision upholding caps

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Jun 23, 2011

CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia State Medical Association says it applauds the Court's "well reasoned decision" to uphold the state's cap on non-economic damages in medical liability lawsuits.

The Court, in its ruling Wednesday, found that the state limit on compensatory damages for medical malpractice to be constitutional.

The state medical association was among those medical groups to file an amicus brief with the state's highest court in support of City Hospital Inc. and Dr. Sayeed Ahmed.

In fall 2004, James MacDonald, 56, was admitted to the hospital, located in the state's Eastern Panhandle, for pneumonia. At the time, he was taking various medications because of a kidney transplant and other chronic conditions. The combination of the medications and new ones, for the pneumonia, resulted in a condition called rhabdomyolysis, which caused MacDonald's muscles to waste away.

MacDonald's attorneys say the treatment he received at the hospital lessened his and his wife Debbie's enjoyment of their life together.

A jury agreed, finding the hospital and the doctor liable for MacDonald's condition. They awarded him $129,000 for medical expenses and lost wages, and $1 million for pain and suffering. The jury also awarded his wife $500,000 for pain and suffering.

However, a Berkeley County Circuit Court judge, citing the caps in state law, reduced the $1.5 million jury award for pain and suffering to just $500,000 for James MacDonald.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, the couple's lawyers called the caps "arbitrary," arguing that they violated the right of injured patients to a fair trial by forcing courts to discard pain and suffering judgments higher than the cap set by the state Legislature.

The MacDonalds, in their appeal to the Court, had wanted the full award. City Hospital argued for $250,000.

"The state Supreme Court has given its stamp of approval to the Legislature's effort to preserve access to quality, affordable health care in West Virginia. The cap was the cornerstone to the reforms passed in 2003 that have worked amazingly well for the patients we care for. I applaud the Court's well reasoned decision," West Virginia State Medical Association President John H. Schmidt III said in a statement Wednesday.

"From the moment the legislation was signed into law almost a decade ago, we knew the state Supreme Court would have the final word. Today is that day and the word we've received from the Court is a very good one indeed."

The cap upheld by the Court's decision was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by former Gov. Bob Wise in 2003 in an effort to improve the affordability and accessibility of health care for residents.

Rising medical liability damage awards had contributed to a spike in medical liability insurance costs, causing physicians to leave the state or limit their medical practices to avoid high-risk procedures.

The 2003 law set the limit that can be awarded for non-economic damages at $250,000 in most cases. In certain circumstances, as in this case, the cap is increased to $500,000.

"The problem was clear and the evidence overwhelming back in 2003 that reform was needed," Evan Jenkins, executive director of the medical association, said in a statement.

The evidence is "clear," he said, that the cap and the reforms put into law have worked.

Jenkins pointed to the record numbers of new doctors being licensed in the state in recent years. Also, the Office of the Insurance Commissioner has reported a 50 percent drop in the number of lawsuits being filed, he said.

"Fewer meritless lawsuits are clogging the courts and more physicians are coming to the state. Reform has been the right prescription for West Virginia," he said.

The West Virginia Association for Justice, which represents more than 500 trial lawyers in private practice and public service in the state and surrounding states, issued its own statement on the Court's decision:

"Democracy works. The West Virginia Supreme Court listened to our arguments and simply disagreed with our position," said Paul T. Farrell Jr., president of the WVAJ.

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