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Liability cap faces legal challenge in West Virginia

West Virginia physicians are planning to defend the state's medical liability cap after the high court there in April accepted a case challenging the law's constitutionality. The 2003 statute limits noneconomic damages in medical liability cases to $250,000 in most cases and $500,000 in actions involving serious or traumatic injuries. The case before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals stems from a $1.6 million jury verdict in 2008 to James D. MacDonald and his wife after he was diagnosed with severe muscle damage following pneumonia treatment at City Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va. MacDonald, who had an earlier kidney transplant, alleged that the hospital and his treating physician put him on a drug regimen that worsened his kidney condition and caused the muscle damage. The doctor and hospital denied any negligence. A Berkeley County trial court reduced the noneconomic portion of the award, which was $1.5 million, to the $500,000 cap. The court also rejected arguments from the plaintiffs that the limit violated their jury trial and equal protection rights and the constitutional separation of powers between the Legislature and the judiciary, among other claims. The high court directly took up the MacDonalds' appeal of the ruling, and the medical community is gearing up for the legal battle. At this article's deadline, oral arguments had not been scheduled. Physicians say the cap has been a boon for access to care and credit the law with reducing lawsuit filings and insurance premiums by 50% and 30% respectively. It also has attracted new doctors to the state, they said. "The reforms have worked and worked well, and we are going to fight tooth and nail to keep them," said Evan Jenkins, executive director of the West Virginia State Medical Assn. The organization plans to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in defense of the cap. Jenkins said the Legislature was within its authority to take action to ensure a stable liability climate, adding that the law balances patients' legal rights by allowing them unlimited economic damages. He also noted that a prior cap -- which stood at $1 million before it was reduced in 2003 -- was upheld twice before by the high court. An attorney for the MacDonalds could not be reached for comment. They argued in court documents that the law eviscerated a valid jury verdict for a severe injury. The current cap also is significantly less than the one previously upheld, the MacDonalds' brief stated. The full and original article can be found here: http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2010/05/31/prse0604.htm
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