New Mexico’s Supreme Court recently ruled that a cap on a specific type of damages in medical malpractice cases is not unconstitutional. This overrules a decision from a District Court in 2018 that found the cap violated the constitution. The ruling has significant repercussions for victims of medical malpractice.
New Mexico Medical Malpractice Act
The law in question has been on the book since the 1990s. An amendment to a 1976 law, it caps noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases at $600,000. The law does not limit how much a plaintiff can recover for economic damages, nor does it limit punitive damages.
Several states limit noneconomic damages in medical malpractices. These are the damages associated with intangible costs: pain and suffering, emotional trauma, loss of companionship, etc. In New Mexico, it also includes lost future earning potential.
Declaring the Cap Unconstitutional
In states that have passed noneconomic damages caps, some have held while others have been overturned as unconstitutional. This is what happened in New Mexico in 2018. It began with a medical malpractice lawsuit brought by Susan Siebert against her doctor Rebecca Okun and the facility Women’s Specialists of New Mexico.
Siebert underwent a gynecological procedure that went wrong and caused complications. These included intestinal and uterine perforations that left her in the hospital receiving care for nine months. Siebert sued Dr. Okun and the medical facility.
A jury awarded Siebert a total of $2.6 million in damages. The defendants requested that the court reduce the award based on the cap of $600,000. The court denied the motion, so they took it to the Bernalillo County District Court in 2018, which declared the cap unconstitutional and did not reduce the award.
Upholding the Damages Cap
The issue went to the New Mexico Supreme Court next, where the justices unanimously ruled in favor of the defendants and the cap. At issue is the right provided by the state constitution to a jury trial. Critics of a cap say that it interferes with a jury’s ruling, and therefore in a person’s right to a fair jury trial.
The court concluded that the right to a jury trial includes presenting evidence to a jury and allowing the jury to deliberate and issue a verdict. The justices determined that any reduction of the jury award is a legal consequence and that the state legislature has that authority.
Criticism of Damages Caps
Critics argue that these damages caps violate the right to a trial by jury by interfering with the jury’s verdict and award. Some also say that caps enacted by the legislature violate the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches.
More practical critics simply cite the fact that it is unfair to limit what someone can recover after devastating, debilitating medical negligence. Some victims are left with severe injuries, permanent disabilities, and serious emotional trauma. To limit a monetary award is a harsh measure to many critics.
The New Mexico result is not uncommon. Many states now have noneconomic damages caps upheld by the highest courts. It’s a trend likely to continue even as patient advocates criticize and fight against these moves.