It has been popular for politicians, especially those on the right, to advocate for the placement of caps on awards for personal injury claims, including medical malpractice actions. Most recently, Republican presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum, says that if elected, he would push to limit payments to victims of medical malpractice, which he claims unnecessarily drives up health insurance costs. What Santorum doesn't push is that fact that his wife brought her own medical malpractice case against a Virginia chiropractor in which she claimed damages of $500,000.00.
The Washington Post has reported that in 1999, Santorum's wife had severe back pain following the tragic death of their prematurely born son, who died the same day as the delivery. Ms. Santorum then sought the help of a chiropractor whom she claimed negligently treated her and caused her to sustain a herniated disc. Suit was filed and the case went all the way through a jury trial. Rick Santorum testified in the case about the pain and suffering that his wife endured as a result of the herniated disc. The jury found in favor of the Santorum's and awarded damages in the amount of $350,000.00. The judge later reduced the award to $175,000.00 claiming that the juries assessment of damages was excessive. The Santorums unsuccessfully attempted to seal the records pertaining to the lawsuit.
As an Oakland personal injury lawyer, I have to ask how Rick Santorum can campaign to limit the rights of others, when it was perfectly fine for he and his wife to use that very same system that is designed to protect those who have been injured by the negligence of doctors. Then, he apparently made efforts to make the whole lawsuit secret in order to prevent the public from knowing about the case. If he had had his way, his wife would have recovered her judgment in secret, while he continued to advocate for the limitation of rights of victims of medical negligence.
What is tragic is not so much the obvious hypocrisy here, but the real unfairness that caps on damages cause real people every day. In California, we have had limitations on damages since 1975. At that time the insurance industry claimed that the so-called medical malpractice crisis was driving insurance rates up and doctors out of the state. The insurance companies convinced the legislature to limit recoveries for general damages for pain and suffering in medical negligence cases to $250,000.00. That has been the limit in California since that time. But has it lowered the cost of insurance for doctors?
According to the Americans for Insurance Reform, in the year 2000, 25 years after the passage of the initial limitations of damages in California, rates here are only slightly less than that of the rest of the nation. Many studies conclude that the cost of liability insurance for doctors is more directly related to how insurance companies' investments are performing, rather than on the amount that is paid out in claims.
Recently, a plaintiff was awarded $6,000,000.00 in a wrongful death action against a doctor Following the 1975 law, the judge in the case reduced the general damages portion of the award to $250,000.00. The wife appealed the case, noting that inflation had eroded the value of the 1975 cap of $250,000.00 to a present value of approximately $58,000.00. Unfortunately, she lost her appeal and the $250,000.00 cap on medical negligence damages remains the law in California (See Stinnett v Tam).
The effects of these caps are pernicious. People who have been injured by the negligence of healthcare professionals often sustain life long, permanent medical problems or death. This cap then encourages the insurance carriers for the doctors to try these cases before juries, because they know that their exposure is limited. This increases the costs of prosecuting and defending these cases, and discourages many people who have been injured by medical negligence from pursuing these claims. So if people like Rick Santorum want to limit damages in personal injury cases or medical negligence cases, they should at least be straight with the public about how these caps only benefit the insurers and how they severely restrict the rights of the public. A cap that has a value of $58,000 in 1975 should be eliminated-not applauded.
Santorum pushed to limit malpractice awards but sought larger payout for wife, Washington Post, January 27, 2012