After the November 2014 defeat of Proposition 46, which sought, among other things, to increase the cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, it looked as if California’s malpractice cap would remain at $250,000 for the foreseeable future.

But now, the California Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of the state’s cap on pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice cases.

The case, Hughes versus Pham, involved a patient who became a paraplegic after a neurosurgeon allegedly delayed treatment following an off-road vehicle accident.  The jury found the physician at fault, and awarded the plaintiff $2.75 million in noneconomic damages

However, that award was reduced to $250,000 pursuant to California’s 1975 Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act. A California appeals court upheld that decision, and the plaintiffs appealed to the state’s Supreme Court. 

The plaintiffs allege that cap violates the guarantee of equal protection under the Constitution. They argue that the law “arbitrarily and irrationally singles out the most severely injured victims of medical malpractice for unfavorable treatment.”

The grassroots organization, Consumer Watchdog, filed an amicus brief, asking the California Supreme Court to hear the challenge to the 39-year old law.

“Review in this case is vitally necessary because the opinion of the appellate court will leave millions of Californians and their families who have suffered from medical negligence without fair compensation despite a jury’s verdict above an outdated cap on damages,” stated Consumer Watchdog’s letter to the Court.

“Thirty-nine years ago, California lawmakers determined that the price of pain and suffering of Californians harmed as a result of medical malpractice should be limited to $250,000. While that limit has not changed in nearly four decades, much else has, including the enactment of California laws regulating excessive medical malpractice rates, the ostensible justification of the 1975 limitation on victims’ rights.”

Ann W. Latner, JD, a former criminal defense attorney, is a freelance medical writer in Port Washington, N.Y.