Medical malpractice in California involves a lot of money, with $263.8 million paid out to plaintiffs in 2015. This is among the highest amounts in all 50 states. However, in terms of actual number of malpractice cases, California is in the bottom half of states with just 17 cases per 100,000 people.
The laws associated with medical malpractice vary by state and can be confusing and complicated. For this reason it is essential to work with a knowledgeable California medical malpractice lawyer with experience helping patients with these cases. These professionals know the laws inside and out and are able to guide victims of medical negligence through the legal system with the best chance of winning damages.
California’s Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act
In 1975 the legislature in California passed the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, or MICRA. The reform was intended to change malpractice laws in order to reduce premiums for medical providers, to stabilize how healthcare is delivered, to make insurance coverage more complete, and to generally reduce the costs of healthcare.
Two of the most important changes that MICRA introduced were the cap on non-economic damages and the cap on attorney fees, designed to compensate for the reduction in damages clients would get. The cap has been set at $250,000 for non-economic damages since 1975. This type of damages covers pain and suffering and other intangible costs of medical harm. In cases of couples, the cap allows for a spouse to also recover up to $250,000 for loss of consortium.
The cap in California is only for non-economic damages. There is no limit to how much a patient can recover for economic damages, past and future medical expenses caused by the medical malpractice. There are also no limits on damages for lost wages or earning potential or on punitive damages. While some states have not instituted any caps because of unconstitutionality, in California, the cap’s constitutionality has been upheld in the state supreme court. The public also supports the cap. A ballot initiative in 2013 to quadruple it failed to pass with voters.
Problems with MICRA
MICRA has had a lasting effect on malpractice and how lawyers practice in the state. Critics of the caps suggest that malpractice lawyers have been less likely to take on cases and to help patients in need because of their reduced fees. This may be even truer as time goes on because the cap has never been adjusted for inflation. The difference is significant, and if adjustments were made the cap would be $1.1 million today. Statistics show that caps have been imposed in 45 percent of cases since 1975, and fees for attorneys have been reduced by 60 percent since the law went into effect.
California medical malpractice lawyers criticize the cap on non-economic damages because of the impact it has on vulnerable victims of negligence. Patients who are disabled, elderly, or who die because of malpractice have less or no earning potential compared to other patients, and in cases of death there are no future medical expenses.
This means that economic damages they could win are extremely limited, and the cap means they could win no more than $250,000 in non-economic damages. Lawyers can’t feasibly take on these cases and still earn a living, so these types of victims are essentially discriminated against and are unable to sue the negligent medical providers. So, while the cap has successfully reduced costs by cutting down on malpractice suits, it has done so by discriminating against the most vulnerable.
Other Malpractice Laws in California
The damages cap is among the most important and controversial aspect of California malpractice laws, but there are other laws that patients need to understand or need malpractice lawyers to help guide them through. The statute of limitations, for instance, is important because it limits the time an individual has to file a suit. In California, that limitation is one year from when the patient discovers the negligence or three years from when the negligence actually occurred, whichever comes first. California has one exception to this: in cases in which a foreign object is left in a patient’s body there is no time limit as long as the suit is filed a year from its discovery.
Other important laws include comparative negligence. This states that a patient’s fault in the harm caused can reduce their damages but not prevent recovery of damages altogether. Patients can file claims against multiple defendants, and a medical facility may be found liable if a physician commits negligence. The law also restricts liability against public entities in the state, such as counties, except under certain conditions.
California Malpractice Cases
In spite of the caps on non-economic damages that make it difficult for them to take on all cases, California medical malpractice lawyers work hard to win what their clients deserve after being harmed by medical negligence. In one case, a patient was left in a coma after the surgeon left the operating room. The family’s legal team successfully tried the case before a jury, getting a verdict that the surgeon was negligent. The amount of damages has not yet been determined.
In another case a $3.5 million settlement was reached between a woman’s malpractice lawyers and Harbor-UCLA Medical Center after she suffered brain damage. The woman had a stroke after delivering her baby at the hospital. She was discharged but came back the next day with bleeding on the brain. The woman and her family claimed that the hospital breached the standard of care and should have prevented the damage caused by the stroke.
Another example shows how the MICRA cap on damages can prevent cases from going through the system. A woman who suffered a stroke was the victim of malpractice when twice the doctors at the hospital she went to only gave her pain medications and sent her home. She told them she knew there was something else wrong, but they did not listen to her. Ultimately it was determined that she had a blood clot and a stroke that left her disabled. She started a malpractice suit but stopped it when it became clear that the cap would mean any amount she could win would not be worthwhile.
Working with a California Medical Malpractice Lawyer
While it may be more difficult in California than in other states to find malpractice lawyers willing to take cases, it is possible. As a victim of negligence you have a right to seek justice, and you should look for the right lawyer to work with you. The state bar association is a good place to start looking. Search for a lawyer that specializes in medical malpractice.
Before you choose the lawyer or team you work with, make sure you have all your medical records and can explain why you think you have a good case. Ask the lawyers you are interviewing about their malpractice experience, success in past cases, and for references from other clients. When you take the time to understand your rights and to find a lawyer who is really dedicated to helping victims of malpractice in California, you have a better chance of winning the damages you need and deserve.