W.Va. Supreme Court OKs State’s Cap for Non-Economic Damages in Case


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  • July 27, 2011

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals stuck by the state’s cap for medical liability non-economic damages in its June 22 decision on a case filed against City Hospital. James D. MacDonald and his wife Debbie filed the suit in February after James had undergone treatment at City Hospital. A Supreme Court document states that MacDonald developed “severe muscle damage,” or rhabdomyolysis, after he was given a combination of drugs during his stay at the hospital. The suit alleged that the doctor shouldn’t have given MacDonald these drugs because of his medical history. A Berkeley County jury ruled in favor of the MacDonalds recommending a $1.5 million award for their non-economic damages. Non-economic damages refer to emotional distress or pain and suffering. These do not deal with physical damages, hence the term “non-economic” damages. West Virginia Code provides a limit of $250,000 on non-economic loss in medical lawsuits. This is extended to $500,000 in severe cases such as wrongful death or permanent physical deformities such as a loss of limb, the document states. For this reason, the court reduced this amount to $500,000. The document states that MacDonald suffered a “permanent and substantial” physical deformity, which is why he was in the upper level. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court, questioning the constitutionality of the cap itself and the court’s ruling. The court stated that it found “no basis” to find the cap as unconstitutional and the court’s ruling to reduce the amount had “no impact” on the MacDonalds’ right to trial by jury. “The Court concludes that West Virginia Code … as amended in 2003 is constitutional,” the document states. “We further conclude that the circuit court did not err in applying the $500,000 cap pursuant to West Virginia Code … or in denying the motions for summary judgment, judgment as a matter of law and a new trial filed by City Hospital.” The West Virginia Board of Medicine reports that the number of new doctors in the state has been on a recent increase and that there has been a 50 percent drop in suits filed, according to a release by the West Virginia State Medical Association. “The cap was the cornerstone to the reforms past in 2003 that have worked amazingly well for the patients we care for,” said John H. Schmidt III, WVSMA president. “I applaud the court’s well reasoned decision from the moment the legislation was signed into law almost a decade ago, we knew the state supreme court would have the final word.” West Virginia Association for Justice President, Paul T. Farrell Jr., also commented on the ruling. “Democracy works,” he said. “The West Virginia Supreme Court listened to our arguments and simply disagreed with our position.” Richie Heath, executive director of the West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said this is an important decision for the state. Many states have enacted a source of reform for these non-economic damages because of their “speculative nature,” according to Heath. “When these medical liability reforms passed, they were hailed as a model for other states to follow,” he said. “We’ve seen medical liability premiums drop and seen the number of doctors increase. This is good for West Virginia as a whole and it’s promising to see the Supreme Court exercise restraint on this issue.” If the court would have ruled in favor of the MacDonalds, Heath says the state could have witnessed quite a different outcome with regard to health care. “We could have very well seen our health care system move back toward the crisis we had back in 2001 and 2003 with skyrocketing premiums, doctors threatening to leave the state and shortages in specialty care,” he said.