Notable State Malpractice Cases; Generic Drug Lawsuit News

Wayne J. Guglielmo, MA


April 13, 2012

In This Article

States Battle Malpractice Cases: Some Good News, Some Not

Recent medical liability news tends to be centered in the states, as a series of reports in recent weeks makes clear.


In March, the Supreme Court of Louisiana "reaffirmed the state's $500,000 limit on total medical liability damages, declaring the cap constitutional," according to an posting.[1]

The high court ruling came in a case that involved nurse practitioner Susan Duhon. In 2007, Duhon was sued, along with her clinic and the state's Patients' Compensation Fund, by Joe and Helen Oliver. The plaintiffs alleged that Duhon was negligent when she failed to diagnose their baby's neuroblastoma, the most common cancer among infants. The late diagnosis, they said, led to a variety of future impairments, including cognitive disabilities.

At trial, a jury awarded the Olivers $6 million, but that judgment was reduced because of the state's compensation mechanism. Under it, doctors who contribute to the state fund are responsible for the first $100,000 of a liability judgment, and the "fund covers the remaining $400,000, with no limit on future medical expenses."

The plaintiffs argued that this was unfair and challenged the limit's constitutionality. A series of court hearings took place, including a pair of reviews by the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal. This court ruled against reducing the judgment but "issued mixed opinions as to the constitutionality of the damages cap and to whom it should apply."

The high court's ruling upheld the constitutionality of the cap and also said that "it applies to all qualified healthcare professionals, including nurse practitioners."


In another constitutional challenge to a malpractice award cap, the Supreme Court of Missouri late last month heard arguments in a case that will test whether a 2005 law that limits noneconomic damages to $350,000 violates the state constitution, according to an article in the Springfield News-Leader.[2]

The case stems from a suit filed in 2009 by Mount Vernon resident Deborah Watts. Watts claims that Cox Medical Center, a hospital in Springfield, and 4 medical staff members "were negligent in preventing serious injury to her unborn son." The alleged neglect resulted in what court papers called "catastrophic and disabling brain injuries."

At trial in 2011, the jury awarded Watts $4,821,000 in total damages, $1.45 million of which were for noneconomic damages. Because of the state cap, however, these latter damages were reduced to $350,000. Watt argues that, in reducing the jury-determined judgment, the cap violates her constitutional right to trial by jury.

Her attorneys have also argued, the report says, that "the [cap] law also violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution because it grants special protection to healthcare providers." The cap on noneconomic damages would not apply, for example, in a case where a child was struck and injured by a truck.

The hospital argues that the lower court was in fact correct when it reduced Watts's award for noneconomic damages.

Among the state and national groups that have come out in support of the hospitals argument are the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Supporting the plaintiff's constitutional arguments are the Missouri Coalition for Quality Care and the Missouri AFL-CIO.

However the high court rules, its decision is likely to affect all hospitals in the state.


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