Supreme Court upholds caps on damages

By Steve Korris | Jun 23, 2011


CHARLESTON -- West Virginia legislators didn't violate the state constitution when they reduced a cap on damages for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases from $1 million to $500,000, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

Chief Justice Margaret Workman wrote that "it is not our prerogative to substitute our judgment for that of the Legislature."

The Justices chose to ignore charts and graphs from friends of the court prolonging debate over an amendment the Legislature enacted in 2003.

"While we appreciate the efforts of all parties involved, courts ordinarily will not reexamine independently the factual basis for the legislative justification for a statute," Workman wrote.

"Moreover, the judiciary may not sit as a super legislature to judge the wisdom or desirability of legislative policy determinations made in areas that neither affect fundamental rights nor proceed along suspect lines," she wrote.

"The Legislature could have rationally believed that decreasing the cap on non economic damages would reduce rising medical malpractice premiums and, in turn, prevent physicians from leaving the state thereby increasing the quality of, and access to, health care for West Virginia residents," she wrote.

The Supreme Court of Appeals upheld a $1 million cap in 1991 and 2001, but plaintiff James MacDonald argued the amendment rendered the cap unconstitutional.

The amendment capped non economic damages at $250,000 per occurrence, or $500,000 for wrongful death and the most serious injuries.

MacDonald exhibited symptoms of pneumonia in 2004, at age 64.

He suffered from diabetes that required a kidney transplant in 1998.

City Hospital physician Sayeed Ahmed decided to treat him as he had treated him when he arrived in similar condition a year earlier.

MacDonald's lungs started to fail on the second day, and staff placed him on a ventilator in intensive care.

He recovered but felt weak in his legs.

A doctor in Winchester, Va., told him he suffered from rhabdomyolysis, a form of muscle damage.

He sued City Hospital and Ahmed in Berkeley County, claiming their drug mixture injured him.

At trial in 2008, jurors apportioned 70 percent fault to Ahmed and 30 to City Hospital.

They awarded MacDonald $92,000 for medical expenses, $37,000 for lost wages, $250,000 for past pain and suffering, and $750,000 for future pain and suffering.

Circuit Judge Gray Silver reduced pain and suffering from $1 million to $500,000.

MacDonald appealed, and so did City Hospital.

The hospital claimed MacDonald didn't prove his case and if he did, Silver should have imposed the $250,000 cap.

MacDonald alleged four constitutional violations, but the justices rejected all four.

Workman wrote that if legislators can establish statutes of limitation and repose, create presumptions, and create and abolish causes of action, it can limit non economic damages without violating separation of powers.

She wrote that to receive the benefit of the cap, a doctor or hospital must carry at least $1 million in liability insurance.

"While we may not agree with the Legislature's decision to limit non economic damages in medical professional liability cases to $250,000 or $500,000, depending on the nature of the case, we cannot say the cap bears no reasonable relationship to the purpose of the statute," she wrote.

"Our decision today places West Virginia squarely with the majority of jurisdictions in holding that caps on non economic damages in medical malpractice cases are constitutional."

The justices found no error in Silver's decisions that MacDonald proved his case and deserved $500,000.

Temporary Justice Ronald Wilson dissented and reserved the right to file an opinion.

He and Circuit Judge Thomas Evans replaced Justices Menis Ketchum and Thomas McHugh, who disqualified themselves.

Ancil Ramey and Hannah Curry of Charleston represented Ahmed, along with Stephen Brooks of Morgantown.

Thomas Hurney and Jennifer Mankins of Charleston represented City Hospital, along with Christine Vaglienti of Morgantown.

Michael Burke of Martinsburg represented MacDonald, along with Barry Nace and Christopher Nace of Washington and Robert Peck of the Center for Constitutional Litigation in Washington.

Seventeen lawyers filed eight briefs for 24 friends of the court.

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