This week’s question comes from Pam from San Mateo:
A good friend of mine’s child recently passed away. My friend believes that a doctor’s error caused her child’s death. Do you have any advice? How can the doctor be held accountable?
I am so sorry to hear your friend is going through this. What you are describing is called medical negligence or medical malpractice. Medical error is far too common and hundreds of thousands of Americans die each year as a result. Unfortunately, in the state of California, the options for recovery for the errors of medical providers and the ability to hold them accountable is extremely limited because of the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975, otherwise known as “MICRA”.
MICRA was signed into law in 1975 and limits compensation for what are called “non-economic” damages, including things like pain and suffering and wrongful death damages for the loss of a loved one such as a parent, child, or spouse, or other impacts on quality of life such as the loss of a limb or cognitive function. MICRA limited the maximum recovery for non-economic damages for preventable medical negligence at no more than $250,000. This amount has not changed since 1975. With inflation, the $250,000 cap now would equate to approximately $50,000 in 1975. Roughly speaking, had this cap kept up with inflation, the cap would now be approximately $1.2 million.
Medical malpractice cases are long and difficult and often require the retention of expert witnesses. Costs to successfully hold a medical services provider accountable for negligence can exceed $100,000. While there are ways to potentially recover these costs through a jury trial, doing so is time consuming, stressful, and not a guarantee. As a result, there are not many lawyers that take on these cases, nor is this often something that people potentially want to pursue because of the small amount of net recovery once litigation costs and attorney fees are paid. Many plaintiffs go through multiple years of stressful, invasive litigation in medical malpractice cases. Medical malpractice cases are more costly than other personal injury cases such as automobile accidents, because defense attorneys and the insurance companies paying for them will take as many steps as possible to whittle down the already smaller pot for recovery. Jurors who decide these cases are not informed of the cap, and only find out after the verdict that the plaintiff’s recovery is limited to $250,000.
While your friend is thinking through whether to pursue a medical malpractice case, it is important to remember that there is a one-year statute of limitations on medical malpractice claims in California. The clock begins running when the plaintiff knew or had reason to know of the medical malpractice. This determination is case specific and not always easy to determine. If you are ever considering bringing a medical malpractice case, it is important to have your case evaluated as soon as possible. Evaluation of your case by a medical malpractice attorney also often involves an initial review of all available medical records by a doctor or other expert, so gathering all the medical records from the treatment at issue as expeditiously as possible will also help.
Economic damages are still recoverable under MICRA. Unfortunately, for the death of a child or someone who is not employed, economic damages will be relatively minimal, essentially limited to funeral expenses. When the injured person survives and has ongoing medical expenses related to the doctor’s error, the injured person can also recover for those medical expenses, with some limitations.
Another important thing to note about MICRA is that MICRA does not just limit what most people think of as medical malpractice, it also impacts recovery against other health care providers such as massage therapists.
California voters will have the opportunity to change the law in the November 2022 election when the Fairness for Injured Patients Act is on the ballot. The Fairness for Injured Patients Act will adjust for inflation the maximum $250,000 compensation cap set on quality of life and wrongful death survivor damages to approximately $1.2 million. It will also allow judges and jurors to decide that compensation above the cap is appropriate in the cases of catastrophic injury or death. Jurors will also be informed of the cap. Additionally, the Fairness for Injured Patients Act will adjust the limitations on economic damages recovery for medical malpractice cases so that insurance companies cannot shift the costs back onto parties that are not at fault.
Additionally, the Fairness for Injured Patients Act will extend the time to bring a claim for medical malpractice to two years instead of one year, which is more in line with the time to bring a claim for other personal injury causes of action.
I am again so sorry for your friend’s loss. They are lucky to have a friend like you supporting them in their time of need.