Published July 12, 2004
WASHINGTON – California's medical malpractice (search) law, cited as a model by President Bush, has reduced awards in malpractice trials by an average 30 percent, according to a study released Monday.
But because the landmark law capped attorney fees as well as jury awards, the net recovery by injured patients and their families fell only 15 percent, the study said. Payments to plaintiffs' lawyers dropped 60 percent.
The study by the Rand Corp. (search), a Santa Monica, Calif., think tank, looked only at how California's 1975 law affected payments in cases that went to trial. It did not look at whether the lower awards reduced malpractice insurance premiums for doctors or medical bills for consumers. Proponents argue that curbing medical malpractice lawsuits would have those results.
California's Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (search) capped recoveries for non-economic damages like pain and suffering at $250,000. A jury can award more than that, but after the verdict the judge limits the award. The law also capped attorney fees on a sliding scale. The highest percentage that an attorney can recover is 40 percent of the first $50,000 of any award.
California's law is among the most restrictive in the nation in compensating patients for malpractice. Bush has cited it in prodding Congress to pass medical malpractice legislation sought by doctors and insurance companies but opposed by trial lawyers. Such legislation has passed the House, but Republicans have repeatedly failed to get it through the Senate, most recently in April.
The study examined 257 plaintiff verdicts in California medical malpractice trials from 1995 to 1999. Among its other findings:
— Fifty-eight percent of cases involving the death of a patient resulted in jury awards that had to be capped, compared with 41 percent of cases involving injuries. The median award reduction for cases involving death was 49 percent, compared with 28 percent for injury cases. The combined average reduction was 30 percent.
— Injury cases in which jury awards were reduced by $2.5 million or more usually involved newborns and young children with very critical injuries.