Judge upholds state’s tort cap, but criticizes law

JACKSON — A federal judge has upheld Mississippi’s cap of $500,000 on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases.

The ruling came in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a woman and her unborn baby who died after being denied potential lifesaving treatment at a hospital on the Choctaw Reservation in Neshoba County.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves applied the caps in the case, finding that his hands were tied and the Mississippi Supreme Court would likely find the caps constitutional.

But Reeves found fault with the caps and what he perceived as their unfairness.

“All grief is not equal. All pain cannot be reduced to a one-size-fits-all sum. In Mississippi, though, one’s suffering at the hands of a health care provider is worth no more than half a million dollars, no matter how egregious, and no matter if your suffering leads to your death, your unborn child’s death, and leaves your children orphans. This is offensive,” Reeves wrote on June 13 in upholding the limits.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Jackson did not respond to a request for comment nor did the Mississippi attorney general’s office.

Michael T. Jaques, an attorney for plaintiff Kathy Clemons, said an appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is being considered.

“This is a unique case in that it was the judge — not a jury — that awarded the damages against the United States in an amount that would compensate the victims for their loss,” Jaques said.

Clemons sued the U.S. government in 2010 after the death of her daughter, Tiara Clemons, and Clemons’ unborn grandchild. Clemons argued that her daughter was denied potential lifesaving care by doctors at the emergency room of the Choctaw Health Center on the reservation of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in Neshoba County. The Choctaw Health Center operated under rules of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Indian Health Service.

Tiara Clemons eventually was transferred to a Jackson hospital where she and the unborn child died.

The government admitted, in court documents, that the care provided at the health center “did not comply with, and fell below, the standard of care” that should have been provided.

The government said the breaches of the standard of care were the proximate cause of the deaths of Tiara Clemons and her child.

With that admission, the case turned to the issue of economic and non-economic damages. Punitive damages are disallowed in the federal courts.

In an Oct. 30, 2012, ruling, Reeves awarded $5.45 million in noneconomic damages and $1.8 million in economic damages. However, before making the award final, Reeves asked both sides to address the question of Mississippi’s tort limits.

Mississippi’s $1 million cap on noneconomic damages applies to what a jury can award someone for such things as pain and suffering. The limits on damages were adopted by Mississippi lawmakers after years of contentious wrangling.

Noneconomic damages under Mississippi law do not include punitive damages.

There is no cap on damages for economic losses, such as how much the person could have expected to earn in his or her lifetime or for such things as continuing medical expenses.

Reeves allowed Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood to intervene in the case.

In court documents, the attorney general’s office argued that Mississippi’s cap on noneconomic damages had never been found unconstitutional and state courts elsewhere have upheld such limits on the amount of noneconomic damages recoverable in medical malpractice cases.

“While a few states have invalidated caps on noneconomic damages, the clear trend by state courts has been to uphold statutory caps under both state law and the U.S. Constitution,” the attorney general’s office said.

Hood said the noneconomic damage limits apply to the Clemons’ case.

Clemons’ attorneys argued there was no guarantee that the Mississippi Supreme Court would uphold the damage limits if it had a case on which to rule. Without that guarantee, Clemons argued Reeves should declare the limits unconstitutional.

Clemons’ attorneys argued that the law “stands alone as a statutory deprivation of a victim’s right to judgment against a responsible party for the actual damages sustained.”

On June 13, Reeves imposed the limits on noneconomic damages of $500,000 each for Tiara Clemons and her unborn child. He said economic damages would remain at $1.8 million.

“The statutory damage limitations are arbitrary, and really only limit recovery in cases like this one, where the horrible suffering and resulting deaths require an award of damage in an amount in excess of the limits, not only to compensate the victims, but to create an incentive for private and government run hospitals to provide appropriate medical care and avoid medical errors and mistakes,” Jaques said.

In his ruling, Reeves pointed to a separate case that guided his decision.

In a federal lawsuit filed by Lisa Learmonth suit in 2006 in federal court after she was injured in a collision with a Sears Roebuck and Co. van near Philadelphia, Miss., in 2005.

A federal jury in 2008 determined Sears was liable for Learmonth’s injuries and awarded $4 million in damages, but the panel did not itemize how much of the award was for noneconomic damages.

Learmonth and Sears agreed $2.2 million of the verdict was for noneconomic damages. A federal judge reduced that part of the damages to $1 million, in line with Mississippi law.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals then sought a clarification of the statue from the Mississippi Supreme Court. In response, the Mississippi court said absent an itemized damage award it had nothing on which to rule.

The 5th Circuit in February rejected Learmonth’s challenge to the limits.

Reeves said while the Learmonth case dealt with a non-medical malpractice case, the 5th Circuit’s decision was binding until the Mississippi Supreme Court said otherwise.

Reeves said the law has “a discriminatory effect as Clemons and her family, leaving them without adequate remedy for their very real, serious injuries.”

“The standard of review requires doubts of a statute’s constitutionality to be resolved in favor of the law,” he said.

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