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Damage Cap for Georgia Malpractice Lawsuits Struck Down

The Georgia Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that limits placed on medical malpractice lawsuit awards in Georgia violate the state constitution’s right to trial by jury. 

The decision strikes down a 2005 law that was included in a tort reform package limiting the amount of non-economic damages that a plaintiff could be awarded in a Georgia malpractice lawsuit. The court declared that the $350,000 cap was unconstitutional.

The lawsuit that led to the cap’s demise was brought by Betty Nestlehutt, who sued Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery for plastic surgery malpractice, claiming that they disfigured her by destroying the blood supply to her face. A Fulton County jury awarded her $115,000 for medical expenses, and $900,000 for pain and suffering. Her husband also received $250,000 for loss of consortium.

Following the jury’s decision, the medical malpractice damage cap in Georgia overrode the non-economic damages portion of the verdict, reducing everything but the medical expenses to $350,000. Nestlehutt appealed, saying that her right to trial by jury under the Georgia constitution had been violated. The high court agreed, saying that malpractice caps interfered with the right to a jury trial by stepping on the jury’s jurisdiction.

The 7-0 decision, agreed to by judges from both sides of the political spectrum, mirrors a decision in February by the Illinois Supreme Court, which struck down caps on Illinois malpractice lawsuits under similar grounds. The decision also follows a split decision last month by the same court that upheld tort reform provisions requiring plaintiffs to prove “gross negligence” in emergency room malpractice cases.

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.

Similar caps are facing legal challenges in Missouri and Indiana.

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