Unintended Consequences of Medical Malpractice Damages Caps
Catherine M. Sharkey
Previous empirical studies have examined various aspects of medical malpractice damages caps, focusing primarily upon their overall effect in reducing insurance premium rates and plaintiffs’ recoveries, and(to a lesser degree) upon other effects such as physicians’ geographic choice of where to practice and the “anchoring” effect of caps that might inadvertently increase award amounts. This Article is the first to explore an unintended crossover effect that may be dampening the intended effects of caps. It posits that, where noneconomic damages are limited by caps, plaintiffs’ attorneys will more vigorously pursue, and juries will award, larger economic damages, which are often unbounded. Implicit in such a crossover effect is the malleability of various components of medical malpractice damages, which often are considered categorically distinct, particularly in the tort reform context. This Article challenges this conventional wisdom.
My original empirical analysis, using a comprehensive dataset of jury verdicts from 1992, 1996, and 2001, in counties located in twenty-two states, collected by the National Center for State Courts, concludes that the imposition of caps on noneconomic damages has no statistically significant effect on overall compensatory damages in medical malpractice jury verdicts or trial court judgments. This result is consistent with the crossover theory. Given the promulgation of noneconomic damages caps, the crossover effect may also partially explain the recently documented trend of rising economic (as opposed to noneconomic) damages in medical malpractice cases.