State appeals court erases $750,000 cap on medical malpractice damages

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin's cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases is unconstitutional because it puts severely injured patients at a disadvantage, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The 1st District Court of Appeals' decision clears the way for unlimited compensation for pain, emotional anguish and loss of enjoyment or reputation.

The ruling stems from a case involving Ascaris Mayo. According to court documents, doctors didn't tell her she was suffering from a septic infection and as a result she fell into a coma and had to have all four of her limbs amputated after gangrene set in.

Mayo and her husband sued the doctors and the state malpractice compensation fund, an account doctors pay into to cover malpractice awards. A jury awarded her $15 million in noneconomic damages and her husband $1.5 million for loss of companionship.

Lawyers for the compensation fund moved to reduce the award to $750,000, the maximum compensation for noneconomic damages allowed under state statutes. The Mayos countered that the cap is unconstitutional.

A Milwaukee County judge sided with the Mayos, finding the cap was unconstitutional as applied in their case. The appeals court went further, ruling the cap is unconstitutional on its face. The court found the cap allows full awards for less severely injured patients but results in reduced awards for the catastrophically injured, amounting to an equal protection violation.

The court went on to say the cap doesn't achieve any of the Legislature's stated goals in adopting it.

Lawmakers included language with the cap that said it was designed to encourage doctors to practice in Wisconsin, contain health care costs by discouraging "defensive medicine" and providing certainty in damage awards as well as protect the solvency of the state compensation fund.

The number of doctors participating in the fund has grown every year and there's no data indicating a cap has any effect on physician retention anywhere, the court said. Doctors don't face any personal liability thanks to the state fund, which would appear to eliminate the need for defensive medicine. As for the fund's solvency, claims against it have decreased since 2005 and as of 2014 the fund's assets stood at about $1.2 billion, the court said.