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Utah Supreme Court Rules Damages Caps Unconstitutional

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The Utah Supreme Court ruled that damage caps in medical malpractice cases are unconstitutional and do not apply to wrongful death cases.

Prior to this decision, the Utah legislature amended the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act to impose damage caps in medical malpractice cases. However, the change did not account for wrongful death suits.

Plaintiff Gregory Lynn Smith filed a medical malpractice suit in 2010 against the VA medical center in Utah after his son, Gregory Lee Smith, died of an acute drug intoxication.   [sws_pullquote_right] Previous Decisions: Tennessee Judge Rules Caps on Tort Damages Unconstitutional [/sws_pullquote_right]

Smith, who had sustained  back injury in the military in 2005, was sent home from the VA hospital after receiving back surgery; the VA medical staff prescribed the medications, which contributed to his death.

Multiple Back Surgeries

Smith had undergone two surgeries before his treatment at the VA Medical Center. The third procedure at the medical center required a permanent electric stimulator, which is used to treat chronic back pain.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, instead of spending two to three days for recovery, Smith was sent home after one day despite his concerns of being discharged so early. He was sent home with morphine in addition to other prescribed medications.

The following day, Smith experienced some vomiting but refused to go to the ER and elected to go to bed around 9:30 pm. The morning of what would have been his second day home, Smith’s roommate found him dead.

Unconstitutional Damages Cap

The Utah malpractice act capped damages in a malpractice action at $450,000.

The state supreme court stated that recovery for damages includes compensation for the loss of anticipated wages, loss of assistance, care, comfort, and support of the deceased.

Recovery for the economic and noneconomic damages existed at the time that the state constitution was created and thus the damages are protected from legislative caps. However, compensation for mental anguish and suffering of survivors can be limited by the state legislature.

The US argued that because the plaintiff was entitled to compensation up to the cap they are still getting a recovery. The court rejected their argument stating simply because a plaintiff can recover damages does not translate into compensation. The Utah constitution says damages that can be recovered for injuries “shall not be subject to any statutory limitation.”

This case is Gregory Lynn Smith v. United States of America, Case no. 20131030, in the Supreme Court of the State of Utah

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