Victims of nursing home neglect and abuse in West Virginia may be subject to caps on the amount of non-economic damages awarded in successful lawsuits if a new bill introduced by the state’s House Judiciary Committee becomes law. The Medical Professional Liability Act seeks to expand the current caps on medical negligence liability in order to include a broader range of medical providers that would include nursing care facilities and pharmacies. Proponents of the law state that the bill would discourage frivolous lawsuits and protect corporations from judgments that are considered excessive while critics believe the bill limits the ability of the court to punish negligent nursing homes for heinous acts of neglect and abuse.
Citizens against Lawsuit Abuse Lobbies for Caps on Judgments
The Medical Professional Liability Act is the result of lobbying by organizations such as the Citizens against Lawsuit Abuse, who have referenced a judgment issued in 2011 as an example of the necessity for caps on judgments against medical institutions. The family of Dorothy Douglas was awarded $90 million following her death from dehydration and renal failure when it was found that she died due to gross neglect and negligence on part of the Heartland of Charleston nursing home. The state Supreme Court later reduced the judgment to $38 million after considering the initial judgment excessive.
The bill being considered would limit non-economic damages to only $500,000 in an effort to dissuade out of state lawyers from targeting cases in West Virginia in an attempt to win large judgments. The Citizens against Lawsuit Abuse have described West Virginia as a judicial hellhole due to the lack of caps on nursing home cases but others argue that the only way to force the for profit companies that are beginning to dominate the nursing care market to abide by the rules is to allow juries to award punitive damages that will discourage negligent behavior in the future.
Legal Challenges to the Bill
Even if the Medical Professional Liability Act becomes law, it may face legal challenges similar to laws passed in other states. One key example is a medical malpractice law that was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court after it was determined that caps on non-economic damages threaten the ability of juries to perform their duties and interferes with the court’s right to resolve civil cases. Republican legislatures have passed laws in thirty states that limit damages but only sixteen of the laws have been upheld by the states’ respective courts.
In Illinois, the Supreme Court struck down two different laws seeking to limit damages despite the argument that lawsuits discourage doctors from operating in the state and even prevent people from pursuing medical careers. It can be argued that the threat of punitive damages is forcing medical professionals to take more preventative measures and care for patients properly in order to avoid liability but opponents of the rulings argue that the number of medical malpractice lawsuits filed declined while the laws were in effect and insurance premiums fell as a result. Should West Virginia succeed in passing the current bill into law, it is highly probable that the law will face immediate legal challenges which can only be resolved by the state’s Supreme Court.
Eliminating the ability of juries to impose punitive damages may have disastrous consequences as corporations are motivated primarily by their ability to generate profits. For this reason, many for profit nursing homes are understaffed and workers lack the training and experience required to truly care for their patients. The end result is the painful deaths of patients such as Dorothy Douglas and it is the duty of our legal system to put the lives of patients ahead of the concerns of corporations.