Fourteen-year-old Aaron Edwards cannot walk or talk and needs 24/7 care because of hospital errors that left him severely disabled at birth.
When his mother was in labor, a nurse at Lee Memorial Hospital administered a drug to speed her labor and then forgot to stop the drug’s IV drip. That cut off baby Aaron’s air supply, causing lifelong disability.
Now a Florida jury has ordered that the hospital should pay $31 million to the teen’s family to pay for his care and to compensate for the disabilities he’s suffered. In spite of the ruling against it, Lee Memorial maintains that it did nothing wrong and that its staff acted properly; it has no plans to pay the full bill.
Many of the 10,000 Americans who successfully sue after being victims of medical errors could find themselves in the same boat – unable to collect enough from doctors and hospitals to even pay their legal fees, let alone make up for lost pay or extra treatment costs that result from health-care-caused injuries.
Caps Differ by State and County
“It does vary by state, but it is very common for individual states to have what’s called a ‘limited tort scheme’ or ‘limited waiver of immunity’ that establishes a very hard cap on the damages you can recover,” said Jim M. Perdue Jr., an attorney with Houston-based Perdue Kidd & Vickery. “In Texas, our cap is $250,000 if it’s a state-owned hospital, $100,000 if it’s a county hospital.”
In Florida, the limit was $200,000 on public hospitals like Lee Memorial at the time that the jury ruled in favor of Edwards, who is a quadriplegic and can only communicate through a computer. That cap has since been raised to $300,000, and Edwards’ and others’ stories have prompted Florida legislators to consider raising it further, though no changes have yet been passed into law.
Reasoning for Limits on Recovered Damages
The reasons for these limits are two-fold:
- States have often capped damages on public hospitals to protect the public coffers. Lee Memorial Health is a taxpayer-owned hospital that cleared $65 million after expenses in 2010. Paying out $31 million on a single claim would have halved its profits and could have affected its ability to provide care for the poor and uninsured.
- Medical malpractice claims have also been blamed as one contributor to the nation’s skyrocketing health care costs, both because of large payouts and because those payouts have pushed up the cost of malpractice insurance to startling levels. Some physicians pay more than $200,000 per year for insurance.
A number of studies have shown that health care costs keep rising even with malpractice caps in place. And, hospitals in states that don’t have caps prove that it’s possible to stay in business even with the risk of big legal payouts – most obtain insurance to keep jury rulings from rendering them insolvent. According to some reports, Lee Memorial did not have insurance of this sort.
Financial Burden of Medical Liability Caps
Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, issued a 2011 report in which it found that medical liability caps make care less available and more expensive – and prevent patients from being fully compensated for damage caused by bad doctors. Insurance companies and doctors are the ones who most benefit from malpractice caps, Public Citizen found.
Ironically, when people cannot expect payment to cover the cost of doctor-caused injuries, they may ultimately put a bigger financial burden on the health care system, attorney Perdue said. That’s because instead of receiving funds that would cover their post-injury medical costs, many are dashed into poverty by career-ending injuries and forced to rely on Medicaid or the emergency room for ongoing treatment.
This is the case with Aaron Edwards. Without the court-awarded funds, he will have to depend on Medicaid and Social Security Disability Payments to get by as he grows up.
There’s not much that most patients can do to protect themselves or to guarantee that they will be compensated if they’re victims of medical malpractice, attorney Perdue said. Many communities are only served by public hospitals, and malpractice payment limits apply to private hospitals in some areas. Meanwhile, seriously injured trauma patients don’t usually get to choose where they are taken even in areas where private and public hospitals do compete head-to-head.
When to Consider Litigation
Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that minor, non-life-altering errors do happen at even the best hospitals, and litigation is not always the best approach.
“Health care is not perfect,” Perdue said. “There are a variety of inconveniences and unfortunate things that occur. If anybody has suffered an event or an injury that is serious, they should never hesitate to call a lawyer and see what their rights are.”
In the meantime, some states are beginning to reconsider the caps they’ve placed on medical damages. Others, including Florida, are addressing challenges to malpractice payment limits on a case-by-case basis. A case currently before the Florida Supreme Court argues the constitutionality of damage caps, and legislators there are considering a bill that would pay Edwards family more than $30 million while leaving restrictions on future payments in place. That bill passed out of subcommittee on Feb. 17 and now awaits a vote by the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee.
By: Courtney Sherwood
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