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Legislature Overrides Governor’s Veto of Medical-Malpractice Damages Cap

The North Carolina Legislature recently voted to override Governor Beverly Perdue’s veto of new legislation that limits the amount of damages people may recover in medical-malpractice lawsuits. Proponents of the law say it will reduce medical-malpractice insurance costs and attract more doctors to the state, but critics say it is unconstitutional and wrongly limits the potential recovery of patients injured by doctors’ negligence.

North Carolina’s new medical-malpractice law limits the amount of noneconomic damages an injured patient may recover at $500,000. Noneconomic damages are intended to compensate a patient for his or her pain, suffering and emotional distress. Other economic damages for medical expenses and lost wages are not capped by the new law.

Importantly, though, noneconomic damages will not be limited if:

  • The patient is disfigured, loses a body part or the use of a body part, or sustains permanent damage or death, AND
  • The doctor’s actions were grossly negligent or in reckless disregard of another

According to the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, the number of medical-malpractice casesfiled in North Carolina has decreased in recent years. Data from the Administrative Office of the Courts analyzed by the group revealed that the average number of medical-malpractice lawsuits has dropped by almost 20 percent. Yet, despite this decline in lawsuits, certain groups convinced legislators that tort reform is necessary in North Carolina.

Similar laws enacted in Georgia and Illinois were eventually struck down by their respective state supreme courts as unconstitutional, though. And, similar challenges to the North Carolina law are expected from members of the state’s legal and patients’ rights communities.

However, because a jury would have to award damages in excess of the cap in a case filed on or after October 1, 2011, and because medical-malpractice lawsuits can take months to reach a jury verdict, it could be several years before a case reaches the Supreme Court of North Carolina for a definitive ruling.