What the “Cap” on Medical Malpractice Means to Virginia Plaintiffs

In Virginia, state law imposes a “cap” on damages that can be recovered in medical malpractice cases. In 2016, the cap is $2.20 million, for acts of malpractice that occurred between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016 (Va. Code §8.01-581.15). This cap is imposed regardless of the circumstances of how the injury occurred, the severity or duration of the injury, or of the need for continuing treatments such as lifelong care. What does this mean to you as you or your family or friends try to pursue justice for medical negligence?

Consider a sad but straightforward medical malpractice case: A five-year old boy hospitalized for a routine procedure is given the wrong medication. He suffers an irrevocable brain injury that leaves him permanently disabled, requiring full-time care for the rest of his life (about 60 years). At trial, a life care planner testifies that the child’s care will be $300,000 per year or about $18 million over his lifetime. The negligence is undisputed. The jury returns a verdict in the amount of $25 million (lifetime care plus $7 million for diminished quality of life) to be placed in trust for the child’s benefit. The judge thanks the jurors for their service to the community and they leave, believing that they have justly compensated this young boy. However, unbeknownst to the jury, the judge will reduce the verdict by $23 million down to the cap of $2 million (the cap at the time of the malpractice), leaving the boy’s family with extraordinary financial pressures to try to care for their son during their lifetime. This would likely bankrupt most families.

This means two things to you when you consider pursuing a medical malpractice case. The cap is unfair but it is a reality. Second, the lawyer you choose must actively prepare the case for trial, not merely pursue a settlement. Why? Why incur the expense of experts, depositions, document review and other necessary steps in trial preparation? Because the defendant in Virginia has little to lose by going to court as his risk is clear and contained — the cap is the most the defendant can lose, regardless of any circumstances of the case. As a result, settlement offers from the the defendant’s insurance company are generally far less than what the case is worth and nearly always less than the cap.

If this same case occurred in Washington, D.C. – that doesn’t have a cap – the defendant has every incentive to try to settle the case because their risk is so much greater. The case of the five-year-old boy is far from “frivolous” and the $25 million jury verdict is reasonable. The defendant in D.C. faces potential exposure of at least $25 million. The plaintiff’s bargaining position is far stronger in this situation and would likely result in a fair settlement.

The cap is horribly unfair in another way. In our hypothetical case, the life care costs for the boy after he turns 18 would probably be born by the taxpayers of Virginia, not the medical professionals who caused his injury. Without funds to care for their son, federal and state aid programs would end up paying his bills. And we taxpayers pay for those programs.

Gary B. Mims