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AARP Asks Court to Consider Medical Malpractice Damage Caps Law

AARP and eight other organizations have asked the California Supreme Court to agree to review an outdated and misguided medical malpractice law and rule it unconstitutional.


California’s Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) enacted in 1975 capped noneconomic damages in medical malpractice at $250,000. Noneconomic damages are those such as pain and suffering. For people who have low-wage jobs (or no jobs), especially older people, noneconomic damages are particularly important as they may have no proof of lost wages on which to base an economic claim for recovery. Moreover, under such caps even a lifetime of pain and suffering will be under-compensated for those without an economic claim.

Trent Hughes was injured in a vehicle accident which resulted in a severe spinal cord injury. After a physician misdiagnosed his injury and failed to perform timely surgery he incurred permanent injuries and, as a result, was left a paraplegic. A jury found that misdiagnosis and delay in receiving treatment also left him with a lifetime of pain and suffering in addition to massive future medical costs and lost wages. They awarded Hughes and his wife 3.75 million dollars in noneconomic damages, which a judge reduced to the statutory maximum of $250,000 each – the statutory cap that has not been updated in 39 years.

Hughes alleges that the law is not only outdated but a fundamental violation of the state constitutional right to trial by jury. For example, capping damages removes an important question from a jury – implicating the right to a jury trial on the full merits of the case. He also alleges that restricting what a jury is entitled to hear might also implicate separation of powers delineated in the state’s constitution. That is, such a law might be considered overstepping by the legislature into matters that are properly the realm of the judicial branch. Recently, several other state supreme courts have concluded that caps on medical malpractice violate the state constitutional guarantees to trial by jury and separation of powers.

The question is now before the California Supreme Court, where AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys have filed AARP’s letter brief with eight other organizations concerned with access to justice asking the court to review the statutory cap.

The letter brief spotlights the disproportionate effect caps on non-economic damages have on the poor, racial minorities, women, and older people. For example, older patients in hospitals are particularly susceptible to treatment-related injuries like falls, hospital-acquired infections, adverse drug events, pressure sores, and surgical complications. They are also more likely than other patients to suffer misdiagnosis and/or delay in treatment. The risks skyrocket when one adds long-term care facilities to hospitals in analyzing the data. Approximately 1.2 million persons aged 65 or older live in long term care facilities, and from this population nearly 150,000 allegations of abuse or neglect were reported in 2012 alone.

What’s at Stake

Older people suffer serious medical errors at twice the rates of other patients but in states where laws like MICRA exist, they are often unable to seek full redress in courts. Moreover, retirees and older people near the end of their wage-earning careers are disproportionately harmed by a system that hinges on economic recovery for lost and future wages.

Case Status

Hughes v. Pham is before the Supreme Court of California.