By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases is unconstitutional because it puts severely injured patients at a disadvantage, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The District 1 Court of Appeals’ decision clears the way for unlimited compensation for pain, emotional anguish and loss of enjoyment or reputation.
The ruling stems from a case involving Ascaris Mayo, a Milwaukee resident. According to court documents, doctors didn’t tell her she was suffering from a septic infection and, as a result, she fell into a coma and had to have all four of her limbs amputated after gangrene had set in.
Mayo and her husband sued the doctors and the state malpractice-compensation fund, an account doctors pay into to cover malpractice awards. A jury awarded them $25.3 million in damages, including $15 million in noneconomic damages and $1.5 million for her husband’s loss of companionship.
Lawyers for the compensation fund moved to reduce the noneconomic damages award to $750,000, which is the maximum compensation for such damages allowed under state statutes. The Mayos countered that the cap is unconstitutional.
A Milwaukee County judge sided with the Mayos, finding the cap, as it was applied in their case, was unconstitutional. The appeals court went further, ruling the cap is unconstitutional on its face. The court found the cap allows full awards for less severely injured patients but results in reduced awards for the catastrophically injured, and thus violates the equal-protection clause.
The court went on to say the cap doesn’t achieve any of the Legislature’s stated goals in adopting it.
Lawmakers included language with the cap that said it was designed to encourage doctors to practice in Wisconsin, contain health-care costs by discouraging “defensive medicine” and providing certainty in damage awards, as well as protect the solvency of the state compensation fund.
The number of doctors participating in the fund has increased every year. The court found that there are no data suggesting a cap has any effect whatsoever on physician retention, the court said.
The court also noted that the state fund prevents doctors from facing personal liability, a fact that would appear to eliminate the need for defensive medicine. As for the fund itself, it has become more solvent since 2005, when the claims against it started decreasing. By 2014, the fund’s assets stood at about $1.2 billion, the court said.
“We are left with literally no rational factual basis in the record before us which supports the legislature’s determination that the $750,000 limitation on noneconomic damages is necessary or appropriate to promote any of the stated legislative objectives,” according to the court’s opinion.
Attorneys for the fund and the doctors in the Mayo case didn’t immediately respond to email messages seeking comment Wednesday morning.
The American Medical Association, the Wisconsin Medical Society and the Wisconsin Hospital Association filed a brief in the case urging the appeals court to maintain the cap, saying upsetting the Legislature’s policy choice would stymie physician recruitment and in turn impair health care in the state.
The WHA issued a statement Wednesday saying the group disagrees with the ruling, saying the cap has served the state well. The group said it expects the case will go the state Supreme Court.
The Wisconsin Medical Society also issued a statement echoing the WHA’s concerns, saying the decision “invalidates a key component of Wisconsin’s comprehensive medical liability system.”