NC malpractice caps saved when legislature overrides governor's veto

August 3, 2011

The effort to cap medical malpractice judgments in North Carolina looked like a lost cause when Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed the bill, but the state House of Representatives overrode her veto to limit noneconomic damages to $500,000 for a negligent physician. Some 30 states have some form of malpractice caps, but legal challenges abound.

The effort to cap medical malpractice judgments in North Carolina looked like a lost cause when Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed the bill, but the state House of Representatives overrode her veto to limit noneconomic damages to $500,000 for a negligent physician.

That means the bill, which previously had passed the state Senate, became law. North Carolina doctors on the losing end of a malpractice lawsuit will still have to pay medical bills, lost wages, and other kinds of monetary losses resulting from their negligence, but other costs related to catastrophic injury or death would be limited. Supporters of the bill, including the North Carolina Medical Society, said the measure would hold down medical insurance costs and make the state more attractive to doctors.

In vetoing the legislation, Perdue said the malpractice bill was “unbalanced” and did not offer enough protection to catastrophically injured patients.

According to a summary by the North Carolina Medical Society, the new law has the following provisions:

a $500,000 cap indexed to inflation;
no defendant pays more in noneconomic damages than the cap;
no plaintiff receives more in noneconomic damages than the cap;
the cap does not apply if plaintiff suffers disfigurement, loss of use of part of the body, permanent injury, or death;
the cap also does not apply if the defendant's conduct was in reckless disregard of the rights of others, grossly negligent, fraudulent, intentional, or with malice;
the cap has no effect on recovery for economic harm such as medical expenses and lost wages. Cap applies to all civil actions where plaintiff is seeking damages of more than $150,000.

The law also allows any party to obtain separate trial phases, with the first phase determining if the physician was negligent, and the second addressing the severity of the injury. The medical society noted that the provision “addresses classic jury error equating bad outcome with professional negligence.”

An exception can be made if a judge finds a good cause for a single trial.

North Carolina joins some 30 other states in instituting caps on malpractice awards, although the laws vary greatly, according to the American Medical Association (AMA).

Caps on noneconomic or total damages have been upheld as constitutional in at least 16 states, according to the AMA, with courts throwing out the laws in at least 11 states. In some of those states in which the caps were ruled unconstitutional, new laws have been passed but have not yet undergone judicial scrutiny.

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