For 45 years California has had a cap on the amount of damages victims of medical malpractice can collect. Non-economic damages, those costs associated with things like pain and suffering, loss of companionship, and emotional pain, are currently capped at $250,000, no matter how catastrophic the incident. A group of survivors of medical malpractice have pushed for a ballot initiative in the state to increase this limit, but that vote is now being delayed until at least 2022.

The Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act

In 1975 California governor Jerry Brown signed the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) into law. The intent of the law was to reduce premium costs for medical malpractice insurance by limiting the amount of damages victims could receive.

The cap was set at $250,000 and has not been changed for 45 years. It has not increased for inflation and it does not account for severe cases of harm from medical negligence. The law did not limit economic damages, so those victims can still recover unlimited damages related to actual medical costs. The law has been upheld by the state’s Supreme Court and a ballot initiative to raise the cap failed in 2013.

The Problems with MICRA

While advocates for physicians say that laws like this are essential to keep the costs of healthcare down, critics say it hurts the most vulnerable. Victims of medical malpractice in California suffer because of the non-economic damages cap.

The cap has never been adjusted to account for inflation, so the $250,000 can be trivial in cases of extreme harm, like complete paralysis or serious disfiguration. The law sets the cap, but another law does allow judges to decide to increase it in catastrophic cases.

Another issue is that the cap limits what lawyers can earn taking on malpractice lawsuits. Some victims find it difficult or impossible to find representation, which limits their ability to seek justice. Advocates for patients see this as unconstitutional.

Voting to Increase the Cap Postponed Due to COVID-19

The current initiative, known as the California Changes to Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Cap Initiative, is backed by several groups and led by The Fairness for Injured Patients Act Coalition. The goal is to increase the cap to allow for inflation, which would bring it up to $1.2 million, and to get annual inflationary adjustments going forward.

The initiative was initially set to get on the ballot in 2020, with nearly one million signatures lined up to qualify. Now, the supporters of the voting initiative are hoping to qualify for the 2022 ballot instead. At issue is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in priority shifts for many voters. Supporters fear voters are too distracted right now to see the importance of the issue and the initiative.

The initiative has a lot of backers, including newspaper editorial boards, politicians, trial lawyers, and patient advocate groups, like Consumer Watchdog. Those opposed to an increase in non-economic damages caps include medical insurance companies and some physician groups. At issue is the fairness of the compensation that victims can receive when negligence causes them serious harm. If you have been harmed by a doctor’s actions or mistakes, contact a medical malpractice lawyer in your state to learn about the laws and your options.