House Republicans Pass Bill That Caps Malpractice Lawsuit Damages

House Republicans have voted to approve a new bill that would override jury decisions in medical malpractice lawsuits nationwide, placing a cap on the amount of damages victims or their families may be awarded as a result of negligent medical treatment.

Late last month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted almost along party lines to limit punitive and non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, to $250,000, regardless of the nature of the injuries, the decision of the jury or the evidence presented in a court of law.

The medical malpractice cap would also limit punitive damages against defendants who knowingly caused harm or committed gross negligence to a limit of two-times the economic damages awarded by the jury.

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The legislation, which also would eliminate a board whose job it would be to reduce the cost of Medicare, passed in the House 223 to 181, with only seven democrats voting for the bill and 10 Republicans voting against it. However, it is likely dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is unlikely to even allow the bill to come up for a vote.

If the bill were to somehow pass in the Senate, President Barack Obama has vowed to veto the legislation and Republicans would be unable to gather the two-thirds majority votes in both chambers of Congress to override his decision.

The legislation is a direct assault upon the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, which is already under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. The board that the bill seeks to eliminate, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, is part of the bill and is designed to keep Medicare costs in check. Republican opponents of the act, however, say the board’s job would be to “ration” health care.

Some observers say that the bill and the vote were primarily symbolic, since House Republican leaders know that it is almost impossible to pass such a bill in a politically-charged election year. However, that the vote gives them something to take back to constituents to prove that they are fighting to overturn the Affordable Care Act and put in place malpractice reform measures.

The bill comes as the constitutionality of medical malpractice caps are under legal assault at the state level nationwide. Opponents of the caps say they rob parties of the right to a trial by jury because it ignores the jury’s deliberations and decisions in favor for an arbitrary amount set by the legislature, who has not been involved in the case, heard testimony or seen evidence. About 30 states currently have damage caps of some form.

State Supreme Courts in Illinois and Georgia have thrown out similar damages caps in recent years, saying that the imposition of caps by the state legislatures violated the plaintiffs’ rights to a trial by jury, since the cap overrode the jury’s judgment on what the compensation for those cases should be.

California was the first state to enact a damage cap in 1975, specifically limiting the non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2005 ten states capped recoveries specifically on medical malpractice cases and another 22 have caps that are not limited to medical malpractice. About a dozen states also have caps on punitive damages.

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