Judge upholds Texas' 2003 tort reform

John O'Brien Mar. 28, 2012, 12:50pm


MARSHALL, Texas (Legal Newsline) - A federal judge has upheld Texas' cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap adopted the report and recommendation submitted by Magistrate Judge Charles Everingham in September 2010. Everingham had recommended leaving the Medical Malpractice and Tort Reform Act of 2003 unchanged.

That law caps noneconomic damages at anywhere from $250,000 to $750,000, depending on who is named as a defendant.

"(T)he State has not appropriated any of the plaintiffs' property to its own use," Everingham wrote.

"Rather, by limiting the amount of noneconomic damages in HB 4, the State has enacted legislation in an effort to 'adjust the benefits and burdens of economic life to promote the common good.'"

The plaintiffs, who were represented by The Center for Constitutional Litigation and several Texas firms, claimed the caps violated the Seventh Amendment (the right to a jury trial), the Petition Clause of the First Amendment, the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process and Equal Protection clauses.

The class action lawsuit was filed in 2008 by 10 plaintiffs who claimed their pending lawsuits would be affected by the cap.

"The court's decision removes any lingering uncertainty about the voter-approved cap on non-economic damages," said Mike Hull, general counsel of 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."

Noneconomic damages are capped at $250,000 against physicians and hospitals, with an extra $250,000 available to a plaintiff if it names a second, unrelated hospital or health care institution as a defendant.

"We're pleased with the court's decision in this case because it upholds one of the key 2003 medical liability reforms that has improved access to health care in Texas, " said Dan Stultz, M.D., President/CEO of the Texas Hospital Association.

"Since implementation of these reforms hospitals have invested savings from reduced liability insurance coverage back into hospital operations, including new technology that saves lives and improves patient safety. Hospitals also have been able attract new physicians to their community and offer new or expanded services to patients."

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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