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District Court strikes down malpractice cap

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A state court has struck down a New Mexico law that limits the amount of money a plaintiff can receive in a civil medical malpractice lawsuit to $600,000 in damages.

Judge Victor Lopez of the 2nd Judicial District Court in Albuquerque ruled that the Legislature exceeded its constitutional authority with the New Mexico Medical Malpractice Act to the extent that it restricts the plaintiff’s “right to receive an unaltered jury verdict.”

The $600,000 cap was created through an amendment to the 1976 law and has been in place since the 1990s. It does not apply to medical costs or punitive damages but covers compensation for things such as lost wages and pain and suffering.

Lisa Curtis, the plaintiff’s attorney, said the case will need to be upheld in the appellate system for the ruling to apply throughout the state.

The ruling stems from a 2011 incident in which a Placitas woman named Susan Siebert alleged she was hospitalized for more than nine months as a result of injuries suffered during a gynecological procedure, according to court filings.

Under the ruling, the defendants owe Siebert $2.6 million in damages, according to Curtis.

The attorneys for the defendants, Albuquerque obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Rebecca Okun and health care provider Women’s Specialists of New Mexico, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The Journal could not determine whether the defendants plan to appeal the decision.

Curtis called the cap “really outdated.”

“A $600,000 cap isn’t even the equivalent of paying someone minimum wage, if you’re talking about a plaintiff who dies as a result of medical malpractice in their 20s or 30s,” said Curtis.

Dr. Barbara McAneny, an Albuquerque oncologist and president-elect of the American Medical Association, described the ruling as “very alarming.” She said she had not heard of the lawsuit until the Journal contacted her for comment,

“We have a very difficult time in New Mexico attracting physicians to our state,” said McAneny. “One of the things I have used when I try to recruit is that we have a very good and very rational medical malpractice law. If that changes, it will make it even more difficult to bring good physicians here.”

A 2011 bill that would have raised the limit to $1 million was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez, who said it would increase health care costs and encourage frivolous lawsuits.

Curtis said she hopes the defendants appeal the ruling, so other courts can examine the constitutionality of the law.

 

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