New Mexico lawmakers recently voted down a bill that would have capped some medical malpractice awards at $750,000. The bill aimed to help clinics and smaller healthcare providers who sometimes struggle with the cost of insurance. However, lawmakers ultimately decided the cap would have hurt malpractice victims, piling financial injuries on top of physical ones.
As it stands, victims who suffer medical malpractice at a hospital or a hospital-owned outpatient clinic can claim up to a maximum of $4.5 million. The Albuquerque Journal noted that this cap will rise to $5 million for injuries suffered in 2024. It is then scheduled to rise year after year with the cost of living.
What types of damages are recoverable?
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that there’s a huge difference between a $750,000 cap on damages and a $5 million cap. And that difference begs the question: Why are some victims getting the larger amounts?
The answer is that malpractice cases can feature several types of recoverable damages:
- Medical expenses. Notably, all medical expenses related to the malpractice are recoverable. There is no cap on these expenses.
- Economic damages are things like lost wages and reduce earning potential. Basically any damages that have an obvious price tag.
- Non-economic damages include things like disability, disfigurement and pain and suffering. These are all recoverable damages, but it isn’t always clear how they translate to dollars.
- Punitive damages. Courts can award punitive damages when the malpractice results from malice or gross negligence. These are rare, but there is no cap on punitive damages.
By performing a bit of math, we can see that the difference between a $750,000 cap and a $4.5 million cap boils down to awards for economic and non-economic damages. Here, it’s important to understand that cases like birth injuries can last a lifetime.
The Albuquerque Journal recounted one of the examples lawmakers considered: A pregnant woman received a “dangerous dose” of medication from “an unlabeled bag.” As a result, her daughter was born with cerebral palsy and a visual impairment. She will live with those conditions her whole life, as will her family. While $750,000 may seem like a lot of money up front, it scarcely begins to address the challenges that girl and her family will encounter over the course of her life.
The exception for independent providers
Part of the reason New Mexico lawmakers recently looked at capping certain malpractice damages is that there’s already a $750,000 cap for damages caused by “independent providers.” These are clinics and other healthcare providers that are not hospitals or outpatient healthcare facilities. Individual doctors, nurses, anesthetists and chiropractors can also be “independent providers.”
When is it malpractice?
It’s important to remember that not all hospital injuries result from malpractice. It’s malpractice when providers fail to meet the standards for care. When they don’t meet the standards and their failures lead to real injuries, that’s malpractice.
Because victims need to show their providers failed to meet reasonable standards for care, malpractice cases can become technical and complicated quite quickly. Accordingly, it’s important to work with someone who understands the medical issues. This is especially true in New Mexico where a medical review commission screens most cases before they can go to trial.