For months, it’s seemed clear that California citizens would see a ballot initiative this November on raising the medical malpractice award cap. However, in a unique move from the state legislature, it appears that this will no longer be necessary. As of late April, an agreement has been reached that may allow the state legislature to vote to raise the award cap significantly sooner
Damage award caps can place undue burdens on patients who are already struggling. Here’s what you need to know about why the limit increase may not need to go to the ballot and what this may mean for victims of medical malpractice.
The History of the Medical Malpractice Damages Cap in California
In the 1970s, California introduced a law to limit supposedly outrageous medical malpractice lawsuits. At the time, there was a boom in people suing doctors and hospitals for malpractice. Many of these plaintiffs received damages in the seven figures. Physicians and insurance companies around the state came together to ask the legislature to put a cap on these damages, arguing that they were making malpractice insurance rates unaffordable and pushing healthcare workers into bankruptcy.
While the claim made by the physicians and insurance companies was debatable, the legislature agreed. The resulting bill put a hard cap on the amount of damages patients could receive for “pain and suffering” at $250,000. Other types of damages, including lost wages and medical expenses, were not capped.
However, that $250,000 pain and suffering cap has not been raised in the decades since. As a result, the actual value of that cap has shrunk significantly. Had the limit risen with inflation, pain and suffering damages would now be capped at more than $1.2 million.
That’s why many attorneys and malpractice victims throughout the state have campaigned to have the cap raised or removed. The limit has not changed with the times, and their argument is that it’s unfairly limiting to patients who have suffered extensively due to their healthcare team’s negligence.
Avoiding the Ballot Through Legislation
Last year, the campaign to remove the malpractice damage cap gained strength. Activists gained enough signatures to place legislation on the November 2022 ballot. This proposed legislation would not only raise the cap but also allow judges to ignore the cap entirely in cases with particularly negative outcomes.
However, this vote may never come to be. Advocates on both sides of the issue have reached an agreement that supporters of raising the limit would withdraw the measure from the ballot. Instead, a separate piece of legislation will be introduced to the state Legislature.
The new proposed bill is supported by a wide variety of groups on both sides, including the California Medical Association and Californians Allied for Patient Protections. It would slowly raise the limit over the next decade to approach where it should have been according to inflation, then continue to increase by 2% annually to avoid having this problem reoccur.
The first increase would occur in 2023, with the cap rising to $350,000 for injured people and $500,000 for families of those who’ve died due to medical malpractice. Between 2023 and 2033, the caps would continue to increase until they reached $750,000 for injuries and $1 million for families of the deceased. Damages for lost wages and medical costs would remain uncapped.
Furthermore, the proposed legislation would apply the new limit to parties individually instead of a case as a whole. For instance, someone suing both a nurse and a hospital would be able to receive the cap limit from both.
Advocates for healthcare workers are in favor of this slow increase because it should also address the original problem of unaffordable malpractice insurance premiums. While premiums will likely rise, they should not grow faster than doctors can budget for. Meanwhile, victims will have access to significantly higher damage awards overall.
What This Legislation Means for Victims
Raising the pain and suffering damage cap could have an incredible impact on malpractice victims around the state. While damages for lost wages and medical care are important, they only cover part of the picture.
These awards don’t consider how medical malpractice can permanently impact someone’s quality of life. Furthermore, they don’t always include forward-thinking costs, such as adjusting a home to be disability-friendly or wages someone would have received after being given a raise.
Pain and suffering awards are specifically designed to cover those kinds of costs. By raising the limit, victims are more likely to receive enough funds to live their lives the way they want. For instance, the eventual $750,000 cap should be enough to help newly disabled people buy homes that are accessible or closer to family caretakers. Even the additional $100,000 raise in 2023 would give victims more leeway to rearrange their lives to adjust to their new health conditions.
Assigning the cap to individual parties is also a significant improvement. Many malpractice lawsuits include multiple defendants, particularly in cases where a patient was mistreated at a hospital. In these situations, patients will be able to hold all parties accountable for their actions instead of splitting their attention.
This should also make the punitive nature of pain and suffering damages more effective, as hospitals will have to bear the brunt of victims’ distress. Hopefully, it will encourage medical facilities, in general, to focus more heavily on potentially dangerous staffing practices and reduce the overall number of malpractice cases statewide.
Increasing the Malpractice Cap Means Better Medical Care
Malpractice lawsuits are crucial for holding healthcare workers and institutions accountable for their actions. The state legislature has the opportunity to raise the limit and make these lawsuits significantly more valuable to victims. Furthermore, an increase would make it harder for healthcare groups of all kinds to ignore malpractice claims and incentivize better medical care.
While the bill has not yet been approved by the legislature, it is being seriously considered. Once it’s confirmed, medical malpractice victims in California will be eligible to receive the money they need to move on with their lives. You can learn more about filing a medical malpractice lawsuit by scheduling your consultation today.