Medical malpractice damages cap is constitutional, says NM Court of Appeals

A plaintiff suffered severe and painful injuries, and required subsequent surgeries, as a result of errors made during a colonoscopy. A jury awarded the plaintiff $1,000,000 in damages, but the trial court reduced the award to $600,000 to comply with the damages cap in the Medical Malpractice Act, which limits damages in a medical malpractice action against a qualified medical provider to $600,000 (punitive damages, plus “medical care and related benefits” are not included within the cap).

In Salopek v. Friedman, Chief Judge Kennedy, writing for a unanimous panel, first rejected a number of challenges to the judgment by the defendant doctor, including contentions that the jury instructions were erroneous, or that the damages award was excessive and should have been remitted even below $600,000. The opinion’s discussion of the truly awful consequences suffered by this plaintiff is pretty convincing.

Of more lasting significance, at least as far as the development of the law is concerned, is that the Court rejected the plaintiff’s cross-appeal, holding that the damages cap is indeed constitutional.

The plaintiff argued that the cap violated Article II, Section 12 of the New Mexico Constitution, which guarantees the “right to trial by jury as it has heretofore existed,” but the Court rejected this argument on the ground that the provision does not apply to statutory causes of action created — as the Medical Malpractice Act’s was — after the state constitution went into effect.

The Court also brushed aside arguments that the cap violates principles of separation of powers, equal protection, and due process. It will be interesting to see if the New Mexico Supreme Court takes up the constitutional issues.

Do you agree or disagree with the Court’s constitutional analysis? Please feel free to leave a comment and share your views.

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