Case Tests Liability Reform Meant to Curb Multiple Awards
By Joey Berlin

A liability reform that prevents patients from tacking family members’ settlements onto jury awards stemming from the same case faces a court challenge, and the Texas Medical Association is weighing in to protect it.

A physician and medical group ordered to pay $14 million in a negligence lawsuit are arguing to the state Supreme Court that Texas law entitles them to a credit on that amount because of a separate settlement related to the same case.

The Texas Medical Association signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the physician and the medical organization in the case. TMA, the Texas Alliance for Patient Access (TAPA), and several other organizations argue in court documents that state law allows San Antonio internist Jesus Virlar, MD, and Gonzaba Medical Group (GMG) to deduct the settlement amount from the multi-million-dollar jury award.

The case began in March 2014 when Jo Anne Puente sued after experiencing complications and permanent brain damage following a 2011 gastric bypass surgery. She eventually won a $14 million jury award from Dr. Virlar and GMG. Her minor daughter later settled separately and confidentially with the hospital over a claim of “loss of consortium,” often brought by family members if they believe an injury to their loved one deprives them of care and affection.

Dr. Virlar and GMG claimed the settlement amount should be deducted from the jury award. Ms. Puente disagreed. Both a Bexar County district court and an appeals court agreed with Ms. Puente. An appeals court justice said applying a settlement credit to the $14 million and “reducing [Ms.] Puente’s award in an amount equal to [her daughter’s] settlement results in [Ms.] Puente recovering less than the full amount of her economic damages.”

Dr. Virlar and GMG appealed their case to the state Supreme Court. TAPA and TMA, in their friend-of-the-court brief filed June 18, argue that Ms. Puente and her daughter are both the same “claimant” under Texas law, and thus the child’s settlement amount “reduced the amount of the indebtedness owed to Puente.” Prior to the legislature defining the law that way, there were lawsuits “exploiting a loophole allowing individual claimants to structure their settlements in multi-party cases in a manner to lessen – if not altogether eliminate – any settlement credit,” the brief says.

TMA’s brief also argued that Dr. Virlar and GMG had presented the evidence necessary for the court to order periodic payments, instead of a payment in one lump sum. In a separate decision last year, the Supreme Court ruled that a defendant in a case has to supply evidence on what portion of a jury award should be paid in installments.

Dr. Virlar and GMG asked the state Supreme Court to review their case in January. The court’s timetable for deciding whether to do so is unknown.

Last Updated On

July 07, 2021

Originally Published On

July 07, 2021

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Joey Berlin

Managing Editor

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Joey Berlin is managing editor of Texas Medicine. His previous work includes stints as a reporter and editor for various newspapers and publishing companies, and he’s covered everything from hard news to sports to workers’ compensation. Joey grew up in the Kansas City area. He lives in Austin.

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