Tomorrow, the Supreme Court of Georgia, the highest appellate court in the State of Georgia, will hear oral arguments in what may prove to be one of the most significant cases to come before the Court in a hundred years. It is the case of Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery v. Nestlehutt, which challenges the provisions of Senate Bill 3, passed in 2005 by the Georgia General Assembly, that caps noneconomic damages that a jury may award to a victim of medical malpractice at $350,000.00. This means that if your spouse, who doesn’t work outside the home, or your child who has no earnings history, is killed by medical malpractice, the absolute most you could recover for your loved one’s death is a mere $350,000.00. This is absurd on so many levels. In the Nestlehutt case, a Fulton County, Georgia jury awarded Mrs. Nestlehutt well over $350,000.00 for permament injuries she received to her body due to medical malpractice by her physicians. After a trial, the Fulton County jury found Mrs. Nestlehutt’s case to be meritorious and awarded her substantially more than the $350,000.00 cap. When judgment was about to be entered, however, the Fulton County trial court judge ruled that the cap of $350,000.00 found in SB3 was unconstitutional, for many reasons.
The Defendant appealed directly to the Supreme Court of Georgia, which will hear arguments tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. I have personally filed an Amicus Brief (a Friend of the Court Brief) on behalf of the many clients I represent in medical malpractice cases who have had the value of their claims unnecessarily reduced by the arbitrary caps on damages. Numerous briefs have been filed. There is no question in my mind that the caps on damages law violates a Georgia citizen’s absolute right to a trial by jury. Limiting what a jury says is fair and just, given all of the harms caused by a defendant’s malpractice, is tantamount to taking away a person’s right to a jury trial to decide those issues in the first place. A wronged Georgia citizen can not realize the full benefit of his or her Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial if it is limited in any way.
Also, the caps on damages limits access to justice for many. Many people who have valid medical malpractice claims but in which the only damages are noneconomic, so they are limited by the $350,000.00 cap, cannot bring any lawsuit on behalf of a loved one because they have no realistic hope of recovering enough to justify an attorney’s handling of the case. Although Georgia law allows a person to bring a case pro se, or without a lawyer, realistically, that would never work in the medical malpractice arena. There are too many special requirements for the filing and proving of a medical malpractice case. In reality, a pro se plaintiff would stand no chance. That is the beauty of a contingency fee. It allows a victim to pursue justice and when the stakes are high enough, the high cost of a medical malpractice case (many take anywhere from $75,000.00-$200,000.00 to bring and proscecute) can be justified. Otherwise, it can’t.