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Medical Malpractice and MICRA

Medical malpractice claims seek to provide victims of a healthcare professional’s negligence with compensation for their injuries, pain, and suffering. Due to the nature of medical care in the United States, these costs can be quite high. Medical bills can easily bankrupt a family, as they can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

California, like many other states, has a law on the books that limits the amount of money someone can receive, even if a jury finds that his or her provider committed medical malpractice. The Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), passed in 1975, caps damages at $250,000 for non-economic damages.

What Are Non-Economic Damages?

Non-economic damages seek to compensate a victim of negligence for intangible losses they may sustain following an accident. In a medical malpractice case, these might include:

We call these non-economic damages because it’s difficult to put a dollar amount on them. With MICRA, the state attempts to do just that, with a cap of $250,000.

Keep in mind, however, that MICRA does not set caps on economic damages. These include compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and the projected cost of any medical care.

One of the most controversial aspects of MICRA is that it does not address inflation. The damage cap remains at $250,000, as it has since 1975.

Why Pass MICRA?

Lawmakers passed MICRA in an attempt to provide a solution to several problems inherent in medical malpractice at the time: they felt injured patients should receive fair compensation for negligence, but also had to keep medical liability in check. Soaring malpractice premiums were affecting physicians’ and hospitals’ abilities to treat patients. In this way, MICRA is similar to the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program – it seeks to compensate victims of negligence while protecting providers who do their jobs well.

MICRA also has a sliding pay scale, which helps ensure that the money goes directly to the victim instead of other parties. The cap on non-economic damages was an attempt to control frivolous lawsuits, but $250,000 in 1975 was significantly more than it is now – in fact, it’s around 1.2 million in today’s dollars.

A Cry for Change

Ralph Nader recently led the charge for an overhaul for MICRA after hearing a story about a 20-year-old who received a fatal overdose from his doctor. The parents filed a wrongful death and medical malpractice claim against the doctor, but encountered the medical caps inherent with the legislature. In a letter to Governor Jerry Brown, Nader spoke up on the parent’s behalf and called the caps on compensation “discriminatory.”

Interestingly, Brown was the same governor who passed the measure in 1975. After receiving news insurance premiums were going to increase 250%, doctors and hospital personnel organized walkouts. Many threatened to leave the state and practice elsewhere, which would throw California into a physician crisis. After a three day rally on the Capitol lawn, Brown convened a special hearing that would lead to MICRA.

MICRA has been controversial since its passing, but the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in 1985. Today, an important issue remains: is a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages fair?