Archive for April, 2010

Supreme Court of Georgia Strikes Down Damage Caps in Medical Malpractice Suits

By a unanimous decision, last month the Supreme Court of Georgia struck down the state of Georgia’s caps on pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, deeming unconstitutional O.C.G.A. § 51-13-1, which limits awards of noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases to $350,000.  Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery, P.C. v. Nestlehutt, 2010 WL 1004996 (Ga. Mar. 22, 2010).

The decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Betty Nestlehutt alleging that a facelift performed by Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery left her permanently disfigured.  A Fulton County jury awarded $1,265,000, which included $1,150,000 in noneconomic damages.  When the defendant argued that the damages should be reduced to comply with the statutory caps, Fulton County State Court Judge Diane Bessen declared the caps unconstitutional as violating, among other things, the right to a trial by jury.

In a landmark opinion affirming the trial court, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that “[t]he very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury,” particularly because it requires a trial court to essentially invalidate a jury’s findings of fact on damages and thereby undermines the jury’s basic function.  The Court also found that although the statutory amount is significant, it is also arbitrary, reasoning that if the legislature could constitutionally cap damages at $350,000, there is no reason why it could not cap recovery at, perhaps, $50,000 or $1,000.  Furthermore, the Court distinguished the caps from statutory limits on punitive damages, which, unlike compensatory pain and suffering damages, are awarded to punish and deter and do not constitute findings of fact by a jury.  Likewise, the Court rejected the argument that the caps are analogous to judicial remittitur, the court’s power to reduce damages deemed clearly excessive.  Unlike damages caps, which are automatically triggered at a threshold amount, judicial remittitur is “a carefully circumscribed power, the exercise of which is authorized only in the limited circumstance where the ‘jury’s award of damages is clearly so…excessive…as to be inconsistent with the [weight] of the evidence.”

Four days after the decision, a Coffee County jury awarded $1,500,000 in pain and suffering damages to a man whose thumb was amputated after hospital nurses allegedly inserted an IV needle and allowed drugs to leak into the surrounding tissue of the man’s hand.  In the meantime, speculation and debate continues as to whether the amount of claims as well as the amount of liability insurance premiums will increase.  It also remains to be seen whether there will be a movement to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the Court’s ruling.  For the moment, yet another provision of Georgia’s sweeping tort reform has been eliminated.

For more information, please contact Timothy Buckley III, Esq. at (404) 633-9230.

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