Caps on pain and suffering awards in health care lawsuits – part of the landmark 2003 tort reform law TMA and its allies pushed through the legislature – are constitutional, U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap ruled in March. He denied claims by 10 plaintiffs who contended the caps on noneconomic damages violated the U.S. Constitution. He also dismissed claims that a cap on damages unconstitutionally takes private property and that it bars access to the courts.
TMA President C. Bruce Malone, MD, called the 2003 reforms "good medicine for the people of Texas." Because of them, he said, "we have more physicians available to care for the sickest and most badly injured Texans. The reforms have kept their promise to our state, and this ruling means we won't break that promise."
As Texas Medicine reported in September 2011, tort reform increased the number of physicians in Texas, thus improving patients' access to care, and dramatically cut physicians' liability premiums.
In 2003, the Texas Legislature limited awards in medical lawsuits for hard-to-quantify injuries such as mental anguish, emotional distress, or loss of companionship. The capped amount varies from $250,000 to $750,000, depending on the variety of defendants in the suit. Past, present, and future medical costs, as well as lost wages, remain uncapped. That same year, Texas voters approved Proposition 12, amending the Texas Constitution to give the legislature the authority to cap noneconomic damages in health care liability cases.
The plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit in Marshall in 2008 claiming the state's noneconomic damage cap violates the U.S. Constitution. They argued the cap had a direct impact on an injured patient's potential jury award and on whether the cost of proving the damages was worth pursuing the case. Health care professionals who sought to enforce the damage cap and more than 600 Texas trial court judges required to enforce the damage limits were defendants in the lawsuit. The judge subsequently removed those parties from the suit.
"The court's decision removes any lingering uncertainty about the voter-approved cap on noneconomic damages," said Mike Hull, general counsel of the Texas Alliance For Patient Access, the statewide health care coalition that defended the cap. "A trial lawyer victory would have gutted the benefits of reform and been a big blow to the delivery of health care."
Action, April 3, 2012