California Medical Malpractice Damages Cap Challenge Refused

The California Supreme Court has decided not to hear an appeal that attempted to overturn the state’s 34-year old cap on non-ecomomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, maintaining the $250,000 limit on plaintiffs’ recoveries for pain and suffering.

The court announced last week that they will not hear the challenge of a recent 5th District Court of Appeal decision, which upheld the constitutionality of the California medical malpractice damage cap. The case involved an appeal by plaintiff James Van Buren, who was awarded $2.5 million in noneconomic damages by a jury against a doctor and healthcare company after a botched perianal cyst operation.

Under the California damage cap imposed by the state’s Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), which was signed into law in 1975 by then Governor Jerry Brown, Van Buren’s noneconomic damages award was cut by 90%. Van Buren appealed the reduction of the jury award, arguing that it violated his constitutional rights.

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California was the first state to enact a damage cap on medical malpractice lawsuits, 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.

Critics of the California damage cap say it violates injury victims’ rights, pointing out that the cap has not changed since 1975 and $250,000 does not represent today what it did then. Proponents claim the law, and others like it, keep doctors from being driven out of business by high insurance premiums.

The California Supreme Court’s de facto affirmation of the 5th District Court of Appeals decision will likely spark off a battle in the state legislature, with some lawmakers likely to push that the cap at least be raised to something approaching an economic equivalent of what the cap financially represented for plaintiffs in 1975.

There are currently ongoing battles to raise or repeal medical malpractice caps in several states throughout the United States, including Nevada, Colorado, and Tennessee.


  • KennethMarch 13, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Economics are a consideration here,why try for puntive damages if the medical costs to fix the damage are higher than that before.Not to mention pain and suffering.

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