By: Michael Seinberg
A Bronx jury recently awarded about $120 million to a 45-year-old woman who suffered brain damage after being treated by three different NYC-area hospitals. The award, one of the largest ever issued for medical malpractice in the state, will likely be appealed by the city. Civil juries in the Bronx are notoriously plaintiff-friendly; As one personal injury lawyer told the Associated press, “If I’m a plaintiff, I rather be there than anyplace in the world.”
The case concerns Jacqueline Martin who received treatment during a one-month period in February 2004. She originally sought treatment for a seizure and was later diagnosed with a rare skin disorder that ultimately left her brain damaged. Prior to this she was a single mother of two earning about $40,000 per year as an insurance claims adjuster.
The jury awarded her $10 million in lost earnings, $5 million for past medical expenses (the full costs have been covered by Medicaid since the incident, to the tune of $583,000). The rest of the $105 million is for “pain and suffering,” highlighting the need for a rational limit on such awards in New York. The greatest problem with these awards is that a dollar value cannot precisely be determined – by definition, no amount of money will mitigate the suffering or undo the loss. With 90% of the award to be paid by city owned hospitals, taxpayers will be responsible for the majority of the verdict, while the already desperate healthcare system in the Bronx will take a huge hit.
The events that took place leading to Ms. Martin’s unfortunate condition were extremely tragic. Nobody would disagree that she is due compensation for her injuries and future suffering that she will endure. However, such and outsized awards do little, if anything to improve standards of medical care and prevent future errors. Instead, they drive up healthcare costs to consumers, which disproportionally impacts the poor and underserved who are least able to afford premium increases. Until New York institutes a cap on pain and suffering awards, malpractice premiums will keep rising, doctors will flee the state, public health will suffer, and taxpayers will continue to foot the bill.
The Counsel for the City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation noted that “the amount of this judgment is not consistent with the facts and the law.” One thing is for sure, out-of-control judgments like this one increase medical costs for all of us.