Understanding Medical Malpractice and Legal Caps to Awards

The Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit, recently held the Medical Malpractice Act’s (MMA) award limitation unconstitutional when applied in violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 1974 Louisiana State Constitution. In Oliver v. Magnolia Clinic, a minor child was treated by a nurse practitioner who failed to identify tell-tale signs of neuroblastoma, a form of childhood cancer originating in the nerve tissue, and failed to refer the child for more specialized care in a timely manner. The matter was originally tried before a jury, which returned a verdict against the nurse practitioner in favor of the child’s family, for $6,000,000.00 in general damages. The MMA’s $500,000.00 award cap would have severely limited this verdict, to one-twelfth of the jury’s award. Plaintiffs filed a Petition for Declaratory Relief asserting the MMA is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs made a number of claims that the MMA cap violates the Louisiana State Constitution, including an argument based on the equal protection guarantee of La.Const. art. I, § 3. Because the court found the “equal protection” argument had merit, it did not address the other constitutional challenges raised by the plaintiffs.

The Louisiana Supreme Court made clear in Everett v. Goldman that unless a fundamental right is impacted or a separate or suspect classification is created, the legislature is constitutionally free to limit damage recoveries or to grant immunities from suit so long as it articulates a rational basis for the discriminatory treatment reasonably related to the governmental interest sought to be advanced. The Supreme Court has also held that the right of malpractice victims to sue for damages caused them by medical professionals does not involve a fundamental constitutional right, and requires only rational basis review. However, because the MMA, on its face, discriminates between classes of people based on physical attributes, the Louisiana Supreme Court held in Sibley II that the State must articulate more than a “rational basis” for the cap in cases involving severely or catastrophically injured victims of malpractice to avoid Article 1, §3’s constitutional bar to its enforcement.

In this case, the minor child is a severely injured victim of malpractice. She was injured as a baby and she will endure a lifetime of devastating and debilitating effects on her capacity to perform even basic human functions. The State failed to present evidence to the contrary. Thus, on appeal, the Court decided that “there simply is no rational reason why the most severely injured malpractice victims should be singled out to pay for special relief for a nurse practitioner who operated in derogation of her statutorily mandated duties.” The Court also concluded that “the cap, to the extent it includes nurse practitioners within its ambit, violates the equal protection guarantees of the Louisiana Constitution and La.R.S. 40:1299.41(A)(1), and, thus, is unconstitutional.” The Court reinstated the jury’s award of damages to the plaintiffs.

The legislative purpose underlying enactment of the MMA’s all-inclusive monetary and non-monetary $500,000 award cap in Louisiana was to assure available and affordable malpractice insurance for healthcare providers. The state of Louisiana has a relatively high rate of medical malpractice reports. Louisiana is responsible for 1.3% of all medical malpractice payment reports made against physicians in the United States, a rate higher than over half of the states in the country. This high rate of malpractice indicates that patients should be particularly concerned that they receive the best medical care from their doctors.

A patient is owed the same standard of care regardless of whether the doctor or nurse practitioner has medical malpractice insurance. To have a viable claim for medical malpractice a patient must demonstrate the applicable standard of care, often determined by expert testimony, and that the doctor breached that standard of care as to the patient. The standard of care is a legal term meaning the degree of knowledge or skill possessed or ordinarily exercised by physicians licensed to practice in the state of Louisiana, and practicing in a similar community under similar circumstances. After the standard of care is established the patient must show the care giver failed to provide that level of care. If the doctor’s failure to provide adequate care was the cause of the patient’s injury, it is likely to be malpractice.

If a patient thinks they may have been the victim of medical malpractice, they have one year to file a claim. A medical malpractice action for injury or death must be filed within one year from the date of the alleged act, omission, or neglect, or within one year from the date of discovery of the alleged act, omission, or neglect. If the claim is not filed within one year of the discovery of the injury, it is barred by the statute of limitations, and may not be filed. It is of paramount importance to file a claim within the statutory period in order to seek relief for death or injury from medical malpractice.

If your or someone you know has been the victim of medical malpractice, contact the Berniard Law Firm. Providing the best experts in diagnosing the cause of damages, our law firm is fully capable of meeting your litigation needs. Call the Berniard Law Firm Toll-Free at 1-866-574-8005 and an attorney specializing in medical malpractice will be more than happy to help you get the financial support you need for your medical injury.