Malpractice Damage Caps: Adding Insult to Injury

No matter how much education or training a doctor has, he or she is still a human being. As all of us know, humans make mistakes. Although some degree of error is essentially inevitable in any profession, the magnitude of harm that results from medical malpractice is perhaps unsurpassed. The victims’ betrayed trust and damaged bodily integrity are personal violations of the highest order. As a society, we expect that doctors who make mistakes should be held accountable for their conduct. Unbeknownst to most patients, however, is the fact that many states limit the amount of compensation they can receive if their doctor commits malpractice.

Medical malpractice damage caps, as they are called, are laws that protect insurance companies by ensuring that victims do not receive more than a certain amount of money for their pain and suffering, even if a jury awards them a larger sum. In Michigan malpractice cases, the limit on non-economic damages is $280,000 (adjusted yearly for inflation) in most instances and $500,000 (also adjusted for inflation) under certain, well-defined exceptions. This provision means that no matter how much pain a victim experiences or how drastically his or her life changes as a result of a doctor’s malpractice, he or she cannot receive more than the statutory limit. There can be no doubt that the Legislature adopted this measure to protect insurance companies at the expense of individual victims.

Proponents of malpractice damage caps argue that these laws keep the cost of health care down. This assertion has no basis in fact. Damage awards comprise such a small percentage of the overall cost of health care that imposing limits has a negligible effect on cost. One article in the New England Journal of Medicine attributes the bulk of rising health care costs to advances in, and overuse of, new medical technology. As the author notes, our current President favors a cap on non-economic damages. A more effective approach, according to the article, would be to ensure that a larger percentage of malpractice liability premiums are directed toward compensating injured patients.

Malpractice victims should be compensated in an amount proportional to their injuries. These patients deserve to have a jury decide what that amount is, not a decades-old law passed by a Legislature that put insurance companies before people.