In its opinion filed on June 22, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (“U.S. Court of Appeals”) held that Nebraska’s cap on damages in medical malpractice cases did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Seventh Amendment because the Seventh Amendment is not violated by a state-law cap on a jury’s damages award; the medical malpractice damages cap does not violate the Nebraska Constitution’s takings clause—which like the federal clause depends on a vested property right—because a person has no property and no vested interest in any rule of the common law or a vested right in any particular remedy, and a cause of action is not a vested interest until it is reduced to a final judgment; the cap does not impair access to courts by limiting recoverable damages because the plaintiff has offered no proof that Nebraska’s cap, which has been in effect for decades, discourages lawyers to the point of restricting access, and the plaintiff had not shown that she had difficulty obtaining counsel because of the cap; the Nebraska Hospital Medical Liability Act (“Act”) (Neb. Rev. Stat. § 44-2801) does not violate equal protection and meets the rational-basis test because Nebraska’s goal of capping malpractice damages to reduce insurance costs to make Nebraska more attractive to doctors is rational, and the Act provides, in exchange for capped damages, greater certainty of some recovery by ensuring that qualifying providers are financially responsible; and, the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the Act violates her right to substantive due process because it does not provide a just substitute remedy for uncapped damages (the U.S. Court of Appeals refused to hold that a statute violates due process when it curtails a common law remedy without providing a just substitute).
Nebraska Hospital Medical Liability Act (“Act”)
The Act caps malpractice damages according to the time of occurrence and the capped damages are allocated between two sources: the health care provider’s liability is capped at $500,000 per occurrence (§ 44-2825(2)) and the “Excess Liability Fund” pays the remainder of damages up to the total cap (§ 44-2825(3)).
The Present Case
In the case the U.S. Court of Appeals was deciding, a child was born on November 2, 2012, after a long labor. The newborn was not breathing at the time she was delivered. The baby survived but she suffered severe brain damage as a result.
The child’s mother filed a Nebraska medical malpractice case on behalf of her daughter against (1) The Midwife’s Place, where her mother received prenatal care; (2) Heather Ramsey, a certified nurse–midwife who worked at The Midwife’s Place; and (3) Bellevue Medical Center (“Bellevue”), the hospital where the child was born.
The plaintiff settled the medical negligence claims against The Midwife’s Place and Ramsey but the medical negligence claims against Bellevue went to trial, which focused on the alleged negligence of two Bellevue nurses. The Nebraska medical malpractice jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $17 million.
Bellevue subsequently filed a motion to amend the judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) that was granted by the trial judge, holding that the Act applied and did not violate the United States Constitution. The damages awarded to the plaintiff by the Nebraska medical malpractice jury was thus reduced to $1.75 million based on the Act. The plaintiff then appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals thereafter affirmed the district court’s judgment.
Source S.S. v. Bellevue Medical Center, No. 16-1022.
If you or your baby suffered a birth injury during labor and/or delivery in Nebraska or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find a birth injury attorney in Nebraska or in your state who may investigate your birth injury claim for you and represent you and your child in a birth injury case, if appropriate.
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