The Georgia Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the constitutionality of the state’s damage cap in medical malpractice lawsuits, which one plaintiff alleges violates her right to a trial by jury.
Attorneys for Betty Nestlehutt, 75, from Marietta, argued last week that a law that automatically caps jury awards for non-economic damages at $350,000 is unconstitutional. Earlier this year, state court Judge Diane Beseen agreed and declined to apply the Georgia malpractice damage cap to a jury award Nestlehutt received in a plastic surgery malpractice lawsuit.
Defendants appealed Beseen’s decision and are asking the state’s Supreme Court to enforce the cap. Nestlehutt’s attorneys argue that the state’s tort reform law, which places an arbitrary limit on a jury’s ability to determine compensation, comes between plaintiffs and their constitutional right to trial by jury.
During oral arguments last week, Georgia Supreme Court justices debated the limits of the powers of the legislature, questioning where the boundaries are between lawmakers’ ability to limit liability in medical malpractice lawsuits and interference with the rights of legal parties. One justice questioned whether tort reforms enacted by the state had effectively eviscerated the right to trial by jury.
The challenge stems from a Georgia medical malpractice lawsuit filed by Nestlehutt against Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery. Nestlehutt alleged that doctors at the practice botched a facelift, which cut off blood flow to parts of her face, leaving her with gaping wounds from her temples to her chin. Even after corrective treatment Nestlehutt has been permanently disfigured.
Following a jury trial in Fulton County, Nestlehutt was awarded $115,000 for past and future medical expenses, and $1.15 million in non-economic damages. The defendants argued that the non-economic damage award should be limited to $350,000, capping the plaintiff’s recovery at $465,000.
The Georgia medical malpractice damage cap was enacted in 2005. State legislators said that the tort reform law was necessary to prevent doctors from leaving the state to avoid the risk of high malpractice jury awards and high insurance premiums. The state Supreme Court will determine whether the law violates the guaranteed right to a trial by jury in the state’s Constitution.
California was the first state to enact a damage cap on medical malpractice lawsuits in 1975, and at least 30 states currently have similar laws in place that limit recoveries. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2005 ten states capped recoveries specifically on medical malpractice cases and the other 22 have caps that are not limited to medical malpractice. About a dozen states also have caps on punitive damages.
The issues being debated in the Georgia case have echoes in a challenge being waged against similar malpractice caps in Indiana. Last week, a plaintiff who won an $8.5 million malpractice verdict for the death of his wife challenged that state’s $750,000 cap. The plaintiff’s lawyers argue that the Indiana damage cap violates a section of the state’s constitution which says a jury decision must remain intact, and other provisions that prevent lawmakers from granting privileges or immunities to citizens or classes of citizens.