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Medical damages debate hits NM Supreme Court

Lisa Curtis

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Attorneys clashed before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday over the legality of a New Mexico law limiting medical malpractice damages.

In a 60-minute hearing, the state’s justices skeptically questioned both sides in a case that could shape the legal landscape for physicians accused of wrongdoing.

The argument centered on whether the state Legislature exceeded its constitutional authority by imposing a $600,000 cap on compensatory damages for lost wages, pain and suffering in the Medical Malpractice Act. The limit doesn’t apply to medical costs.

State District Judge Victor Lopez ruled in 2018 that the cap improperly interfered with a plaintiff’s constitutional right to a jury verdict.

The case involves a Placitas woman, Susan Siebert, who alleged she was hospitalized for months after suffering injuries during a gynecological procedure, according to court records.

After a jury trial, Siebert won a $2.6 million judgment. Judge Lopez later denied a motion by the defendants to limit the payout to caps outlined in the Medical Malpractice Act, ruling it would violate the plaintiff’s rights.

Lisa Curtis, an attorney for Siebert, told the state Supreme Court on Wednesday that limiting the damages would “eviscerate” the plaintiff’s right to have a jury decide her case. Allowing for damages beyond the cap also serves as a deterrent to wrongdoing by doctors, she said.

“When you put a cap on death or catastrophic injury,” Curtis said, “you attract poor medical care” to New Mexico.

Bennett Cooper, an attorney for defendants Rebecca Okun and Women’s Specialists of New Mexico, said the cap can’t be stripped from the larger Medical Malpractice Act. The law works as a whole, he said, to ensure that physicians can find medical malpractice insurance in New Mexico, while also ensuring that patients who are harmed can get continuing care.

It’s the role of the Legislature, not the court, to change the damage limit if necessary, Cooper said.

Senior Justice Barbara Vigil highlighted that theme in her questioning of Curtis. She asked whether arguments over the propriety of a cap are more appropriate for state lawmakers.

“Wouldn’t we be legislating if we followed your reasoning?” she asked Curtis.

Curtis herself is a former state senator.

Justice Shannon Bacon suggested it’s within the Supreme Court’s purview to decide on the caps. Court decisions on similar laws in other states have been split, she said.

“It’s a close call,” Bacon said of the outcome in other states.

The court didn’t issue a decision in the case Wednesday.

The case is being closely watched by medical groups and others who say the legal environment in New Mexico plays a role in recruiting physicians.

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