MacDonald v. City Hospital

MacDonald v. City Hospital

Public Justice filed an amicus brief urging the West Virginia Supreme Court to strike down the state’s statutory cap on non-economic damages as unconstitutional under the state constitution. Plaintiff James MacDonald developed rhabdomyolysis, life-threatening muscle condition, after a City Hospital physician erroneously prescribed him a dangerous mix of medications.  At trial, the MacDonalds presented extensive evidence that the hospital should have known of the risk, and the jury found against the hospital. In addition to damages for medical expenses and lost wages, the jury awarded MacDonald $1 million for pain and suffering and $500,000 to Mrs. MacDonald for loss of consortium. However, citing West Virginia’s damages cap, the trial judge reduced the noneconomic damages award to a total of $500,000, cutting MacDonald’s damages in half and wiping away Mrs. MacDonald’s claim altogether. The MacDonalds appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that the state’s cap on noneconomic damages violates several provisions of the state constitution.

In our amicus brief, Public Justice argued that the damages cap disproportionally affected women, seniors, children, and people with disabilities, whose injuries are likely to be primarily noneconomic. The brief argued that the cap violates the state constitution’s guarantee of equal protection by discriminating against non-wage earners such as young children and seniors, whose losses are more difficult to quantify in economic terms such as lost income. In addition, because women still earn less than men, their damages awards in medical malpractice cases are demonstrably lower than men’s in states that cap non-economic damages. We also explained how damages caps make it harder for victims to retain counsel and create a disincentive for health care providers to effectively address preventable medical errors — threatening both access to quality medical care and access to justice.

The Public Justice brief was authored by Troy Giatras and Stacy Jacques of The Giatras Law Firm in West Va., with input from Public Justice Staff Attorney Leslie Bailey and Public Justice Foundation President Harry Deitzler of Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler in Charleston, West Va. The MacDonalds’ counsel are Public Justice Foundation Board Member Chris Nace, former Board Member Barry Nace,  Bob Peck of the American Association for Justice’s Center for Constitutional Litigation, and D. Michael Burke of Burke, Schultz, Harman and Jenkinson.

Unfortunately, on June 22, 2011, the West Virginia Supreme Court held that the state’s statute capping non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases does not violate the state constitution.  With respect to the equal protection argument advanced in our amicus brief, the court noted that, “While we may not agree with the Legislature’s decision to limit noneconomic damages in medical professional liability cases to $250,000 or $500,000, . . . we cannot say the cap bears no reasonable relationship to the purpose of the statute.”

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