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Appeals court strikes down Wisconsin medical malpractice cap


 

An appeals court has struck down Wisconsin’s medical malpractice cap for noneconomic damages, ruling that the $750,000 limit is unconstitutional.

In a July opinion, a panel of the First District Court of Appeals wrote that the medical liability cap denies equal protection for the most severely injured patients who are awarded damages exceeding the limit. The decision reinstates a $16.5 million noneconomic damages verdict awarded to a Wisconsin women who lost her limbs after a delayed sepsis diagnosis, according to court documents.

The Wisconsin Medical Society expressed its disappointment at the decision, warning that the ruling could destabilize Wisconsin’s medical liability environment and endanger patients’ access to high-quality, affordable care.

“This decision endangers the long-term solvency of the Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund and its ability to adequately compensate patients and incentivizes attorneys to file questionable cases in hopes of astronomical jury awards seen in other states without caps,” Noel Deep, MD, president of the Wisconsin Medical Society, said in a statement. “We look forward to further opportunities to explain the importance of the cap to the stability of Wisconsin’s medical liability environment and its benefits for all Wisconsin patients as this case progresses.”

The Wisconsin Association for Justice, an association for the plaintiffs’ bar, praised the cap’s elimination.

“The Court of Appeals, in a concise and well-reasoned opinion, took a brave step toward ensuring that injured patients in Wisconsin can achieve justice by utilizing their constitutional right to a civil jury trial,” Association President Benjamin S. Wagner said in a statement. “The data the court relied upon speaks for itself. The imposition of damage caps against a person like Ascaris Mayo has no rational relationship to controlling medical costs, nor does the verdict impose a financial hardship on the Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund. To the contrary, the court’s decision ensures that the fund meets its dual statutory obligations to provide excess insurance to medical professionals and provide compensation to injured patients and families.”

The ruling results from a medical malpractice lawsuit filed by patient Ascaris Mayo and her family against Infinity Health Care in Milwaukee, an emergency physician, a physician assistant, ProAssurance Wisconsin Insurance, and the Wisconsin Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund. The suit claimed that, during a visit to the emergency department at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee for abdominal pain and a high fever, health providers failed to diagnosis and treat Ms. Mayo for sepsis. The sepsis led to organ failure, dry gangrene, and, eventually, amputation of her extremities, according to court documents.

A jury awarded Ms. Mayo and her husband $9 million in economic damages and $16.5 million in noneconomic damages. After the verdict, representatives for the Wisconsin Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund moved to reduce the noneconomic damages award to $750,000 per the state’s cap. The Mayos challenged the reduction, arguing that the cap violated their constitutional rights. A circuit court concluded that the cap was not facially unconstitutional and that it was unconstitutional as applied to the Mayos because it violated the Mayos’ rights to equal protection and due process. Both the Mayos and representatives for the compensation fund appealed.

In their decision, the appeals panel shot down the reasoning used by Wisconsin’s Legislature to enact the noneconomic damages cap, raising doubts that the limit reduces defensive medicine by physicians and prevents a doctor shortage in the state.

“The record before us does not support a finding that the legislative objectives articulated in [the statute] are promoted in any way because the amount of the noneconomic damages cap is $750,000,” the judges wrote. “Data demonstrate that many states with no caps on noneconomic damages actually have higher physician retention rates than Wisconsin. [In addition,] the record before us shows that the ability to accurately measure the financial impact of ‘defensive medicine’ practices has not improved. ... Indeed, data suggest that the existence of noneconomic damages caps may actually increase the risk to patient safety.”

The case is expected to be appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

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