Court Tosses $750K State Cap On Medical Malpractice Awards

Limits Deny Equal Protection, Appeals Court Finds

Alex Proimos (CC-BY-NC)

A state appeals court has ruled against a Wisconsin law which limits how much an injured patient can get for certain medical malpractice claims.

The case involves Ascaris Mayo, who lost her limbs after doctors didn’t tell her she had a serious infection. She and her husband were awarded $16.5 million but the state’s medical malpractice board reduced it to $750,000, the maximum amount for noneconomic damages under state law.

The 1st District Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiffs, Wednesday, saying the cap is unconstitutional.

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Daniel Rottier, the attorney representing the Mayos in the case, praised the ruling for extending beyond his clients to include “all severely and catastrophically injured claimants.”

Rottier said the award limits were unfair to whose who are most injured.

“No one suggested that the amount the jury awarded was inappropriate,” he said. “The insurance companies never even questioned it. So what it means is that the cap in a case involving a terribly injured claimant is totally inadequate.”

The state fund for doctor malpractice claims, called the Injured Patients Compensation Fund, couldn’t be reached for comment about plans to appeal.

But, Eric Borgerding, head of the Wisconsin said in a statement: “We are expecting that today’s decision will be reviewed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and we believe the court will uphold the well-supported and bipartisan public policy balance set by the Legislature to help ensure accessible health care in Wisconsin.”

Judge Joan Kessler wrote in the unanimous decision that the caps were unconstitutional on their face, imposing “an unfair and illogical burden only on catastrophically injured patients, thus denying them the equal protection of the laws.”

Lawyers for the state fund have argued that caps on damages help retain doctors and reduce “defensive medicine.”

But the appeals court judges noted that, in Wisconsin, doctors are are protected by the fund for large medical malpractice claims and there is no risk of a doctor facing personal liability for a settlement or judgment over $1 million.

“This lack of uninsured personal liability would logically appear to remove any incentive to practice defensive medicine,” wrote the court.

At the time lawmakers created the $750,000 cap a decade ago, they also said it would keep any one case from depleting the compensation fund.

The appeals court noted the fund has been stable over the years and now has over $1 billion in it.

“Over the course of the 40 years in which the fund has existed, to have paid only 11 percent of claims filed hardly suggests, much less supports, a finding of a medical malpractice crisis or even a problem,” wrote the court. “In 2014, a record-low number of medical malpractice lawsuits were filed in Wisconsin — 84.”

The Wisconsin Medical Society expressed extreme disappointment following the decision, saying it threatens to destabilize Wisconsin’s well-balanced, relatively stable medical liability environment.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with original reporting from WPR.