Multi-Million Dollar Medical Malpractice Award Capped

This past summer, we wrote about a law in Indiana that prevents medical malpractice victims from receiving fair and adequate compensation when their lives are drastically altered by a doctor’s medical error. In its current form, Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act, Ind. Code. Ann. § 34-18-14-3, places an absolute cap on compensation for losses such as medical bills, pain, suffering, the cost of future medical care, a loss of wages or any loss of a normal life at $1.25 million. This law has caused families to go bankrupt, lose their homes or live on welfare because of a medical mistake that was no fault of their own. Recently, however, a family from Evansville, Indiana has challenged the constitutionality of this law.

A recent Associated Press story published on January 2, 2016 highlights the circumstances surrounding the birth of Crystal and Jaime Bobbitt’s daughter, Juliann. In 2013, a jury found that their hospital was understaffed when doctors conducted a blood sampling of Juliann. As a result, doctors failed to monitor her ultrasound images, which caused her premature birth at 33 weeks. Due this prematurity, Juliann was born with severe cerebral palsy. She has no use of her arms and legs and must be fed through a feeding tube. She cannot speak and must communicate using hand gestures.

At trial, attorneys for the Bobbitt family presented expert testimony from medical professionals estimating that Juliann’s medical costs, both past and future, will total approximately $8 to 10 million. The Bobbitt family also owes more than half a million dollars that must be paid back, by law, to Medicaid as part of any judgment. Based on this testimony, the Indiana jury awarded the family $15 million to cover all of her medical expenses over the course of her life, her pain and suffering and the loss of a normal life due to the error. This amount of money would ensure that the family would never have to worry about being able to provide for their family while simultaneously meeting all of their daughter’s complicated medical needs.

However, as the article explains, in the law’s present state, the Bobbitt family will never see most of that money. Indiana law automatically reduced that jury verdict to the cap of $1.25 million. Taking into account the Medicaid reimbursement, attorney’s fees and other expenses incurred in bringing this complicated lawsuit, at the end of the day, the family will likely only receive several hundred thousand dollars. This is a small cry from the $8-10 million required to cover all of Juliann’s future medical expenses. As the Evansville Courier & Press noted on December 27, 2015, the family’s medical bills are already mounting, despite both parents working two full time jobs. Simply paying for special caregivers to assist with the many medical complications within their daughter’s life has been a substantial burden.

The Bobbitt family, however, is not giving up without a fight. Citing fundamental fairness and equal protection under the United States Constitution, the family is challenging the constitutionality of Indiana’s medical malpractice caps. It is their hope, that Indiana Courts will join eight other states (Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oregon and Washington) in striking down these limits as unconstitutional. Initial briefs before the judge are due this month, although any eventual decision is likely to be appealed. Until a final decision is reached, the Bobbitt family will not see a dime of the jury’s verdict.

Here in Illinois, the state Supreme Court has found limits on medical malpractice damages unconstitutional on three separate occasions. Lebron v. Gottlieb Mem. Hosp., 237 Ill. 2d 217 (Ill. 2010), Best v. Taylor Mach. Works, 179 Ill. 2d 367 (Ill. 1997), Wright v. Central Du Page Hosp. Ass’n, 63 Ill. 2d 313 (Ill. 1976). One such case found that these laws discriminate against disabled people without a reasonable basis. This rationale is similar to the argument the Bobbitt family hopes to use in swaying Indiana courts to reach the same conclusion.