Capped Out: New Studies Show Damages Caps Are Doing the Damage

By: Malcolm P. McConnell III, Richmond, VA Medical Malpractice Attorney

Did you know that our legal system actually prevents some defendants from having to pay for the full value of the injuries they cause? Perhaps the most egregious example is medical malpractice caps, which prevent severely injured patients from obtaining a full recovery from doctors whose negligence has been proven. Even out-of- pocket expenses are limited by Virginia’s cap, so if a negligent doctor causes terrible harm, the cost of caring for his victim will be shifted to the taxpayers – to you – for the rest of the victim’s life. 

Proponents of caps on damages argue that such laws are necessary to limit the cost of health care and allow doctors to practice with a reasonable degree of safety. However, new studies are challenging the long-held belief that damages caps provide these benefits to the medical community. New evidence suggests that caps on medical malpractice damages actually result in more medical errors and higher healthcare costs while having no effect on the number of physicians available to serve a given area.

The America justice system in general, and medical malpractice laws in particular, serve a double purpose. First, they allow patients who have been injured by a negligent doctor to receive compensation.  Second, accountability acts as a deterrent to negligence and carelessness, and raises the standard of care. Researchers at Northwestern University recently demonstrated that when damages caps allow doctors to operate without that deterrent, the result is “higher rates of preventable adverse patient safety events.” In short, once you take away the threat of a potential lawsuit, doctors begin making more mistakes.[1]  

Accountability is an American value. Accountability is a family value.  Caps remove accountability from our health care system.  It should surprise no one that when people are not held accountable, bad things happen.  While the high cost of health care is a major problem in our society, the evidence is overwhelming that medical malpractice cases are not to blame. While some doctors cite the need to defend themselves from lawsuits as a major factor in the number of expensive tests and treatments that must be done, it is clear that when doctors are protected by special medical malpractice laws, there is no decrease in health care costs. Researchers found that “damage caps have no significant impact on Medicare Part A (hospital) spending, but lead to 4-5% higher Medicare Part B (physician) spending.” [2]  Rather than being the main cause of high health care costs, it would seem that the medical malpractice system actually helps keep them down.

Another argument often offered in favor of medical malpractice caps is that they attract doctors who feel safe with the protection offered by caps.  The new study debunks this notion as well, finding “no association between med mal claim rates and physician supply.”[3] Apparently doctors locate their practices based on preferences other than malpractice caps. 

All of the common justifications for medical malpractice damages caps have been refuted. Such caps should be seen for what they really are:  just a way to protect the insurance companies, at the expense of innocent victims.  If we can eliminate such caps, our legal system can be restored to provide “equal justice under the law,” instead of providing special protection and corporate welfare to the most privileged among us. 

 About The Author: Mic McConnell is a leading Medical Malpractice attorney with Allen & Allen in Richmond, Virginia.  In addition to defending the rights of those who have been injured due to the negligence of a healthcare provider, He frequently lectures to both medical professionals and other lawyers on the topic of medical malpractice. Best Lawyers in America named Mic Lawyer of the Year in 2013.


[1] Bernard S. Black and Zenon Zabinski, “The Deterrent Effect of Tort Law: Evidence from Medical Malpractice Reform,” Northwestern University Law & Economics Research Paper No. 13-09 (July 2014), http://ssrn.com/abstract=2161362.

[2] Bernard S. Black, David A. Hyman and Myungho Paik, “Do Doctors Practice Defensive Medicine, Revisited,” Northwestern University Law & Economics Research Paper No. 13-20; Illinois Program in Law, Behavior and Social Science Paper No. LBSS14-21 (October 2014),http://ssrn.com/abstract=2110656.

[3] Bernard S. Black, David A. Hyman and Myungho Paik, “Does Medical Malpractice Reform Increase Physician Supply?  Evidence from the Third Reform Wave,” Northwestern University Law & Economics Research Paper No. 14-11; University of Illinois Program in Law, Behavior and Social Science Research Paper No. LBSS 14-36 (July 2014) http://ssrn.com/abstract=2470370.

 

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