Cap on Medical Malpractice Damages Found Not to Violate Right to Jury Trial

The New Mexico Court of Appeals recently upheld the caps on medical malpractice damages in the case of Salopek v. Friedman. The case addressed many issues related to medical malpractice claims in New Mexico. The discussion here is limited to the rulings about caps on damages.

The cap was challenged on several grounds: violation of a right to trial by jury, violation of the separation of powers, due process, and equal protection. The Court struck down the challenges one by one. We focus here only on the right to a jury trial.

There have been many challenges around the country, with a few courts entertaining the argument that caps on damages violate the right to a jury. Not surprisingly, the New Mexico Court of Appeals flatly refused the views. However, it was pretty remarkable how the Court arrived at its conclusions, going so far as to say that there is no right to a jury trial in claims filed under the New Mexico Medical Malpractice Act.

New Mexico Medical Malpractice Act

The Medical Malpractice, NMSA §41-5-6(A, provide in relevant part:

“except for punitive damages and medical care and related benefits, the aggregate dollar amount recoverable by all persons for or arising from any injury or death to a patient as a result of malpractice shall not exceed six hundred thousand dollars ($600,000) per occurrence.”

The Court set the burden high for the plaintiff, stating that there was a “long-standing presumption that acts of the Legislature are constitutional and that challenges must establish unconstitutionality beyond all reasonable doubt.”

History of Medical Malpractice Act Discussed

In support of its position, the Court discussed the history behind the passage of the Medical Malpractice Act. The Court cited the “medical malpractice crisis” as the engine behind the Act. Its purpose was “to promote the health and welfare of the people of New Mexico by making available professional liability insurance for health care providers in New Mexico.”

Of course, this so-called crisis turns out to be pure mythology. Yet it remains the impetus behind the continuation of the caps in the courts and the Legislature. It seemed to play an essential role in this decision.

NO Right to a Jury Trial!

The Court acknowledged the “inviolate right” to a jury under Article II, Section 12 of the New Mexico Constitution. However, it stated that the request must first exist under the given circumstances for the right to attach.

The Court then cited the many protections for medical providers under the Act not present in the common law. To make a long story short, this discussion concluded that there was no right to a jury trial on claims brought under the Medical Malpractice Act.

To understand how the Court arrived at this conclusion, it is best to read the Court’s language:

“where the Legislature creates a right of action pursuant to a special statutory proceeding, there is no right to a jury trial under our constitution unless the statute so provides… Thus, the statutory cap limiting damage awards for anything other than punitive damages, medical care, and related benefits from exceeding $600,000 does not infringe or violate Plaintiff‘s constitutional right to a jury trial under Article II, Section 12 of the New Mexico Constitution.”

In short, there is no right to a jury under the Medical Malpractice Act because the Act provided for no such right. Because there is no right to a jury, the caps on damages cannot violate that right.

Further Appeal

The sweeping language, in my opinion, is somewhat problematic. For instance, some would like to pass legislation limiting an injured patient’s rights to a hearing before a medical review panel.

Presumably, this is not what the Court intended. Many of the defendant’s challenges to the jury award were denied. It isn’t easy to balance the different portions of the opinion. Further appeal on both sides looks pretty likely.

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