WI Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Appeal of Medmal Cap Case

November 17, 2017

The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed this week to hear an appeal of the July Court of Appeals opinion in Ascaris Mayo v. IPFCF holding that Wisconsin’s $750,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases is unconstitutional.

In its July decision, the Court of Appeals concluded that the medical malpractice cap was unconstitutional because the Legislature lacked a rational basis for enacting the non-economic damage cap. By accepting review of the case, the Supreme Court will have the final say on the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s non-economic damage cap.

“WHA fought hard several years ago to enact bipartisan legislation establishing the current cap,” said WHA President/CEO Eric Borgerding. “The Legislature held multiple hearings and received ample, credible supporting information as it debated this important public policy that impacts the accessibility of health care throughout Wisconsin. We believe that the Court of Appeals’ July conclusion that this public policy choice by the Legislature lacks any rational basis was a significant error.”

Just as WHA submitted an amicus brief in support of the non-economic damage cap with the Court of Appeals, WHA will be requesting permission from the Supreme Court to file an amicus brief in its review. It is expected that multiple health care and non-health care organizations concerned about the Court of Appeals decision will also be seeking to file amicus briefs in support of the non-economic damage cap in this case.

The case does not impact economic damages, and unlike successful plaintiffs in non-medical liability suits who must rely on the solvency of the defendant to recover economic damages, Wisconsin patients who are injured by medical malpractice are guaranteed recovery of an unlimited amount of economic damages through the Injured Patient and Family Compensation Fund (IPFCF) funded by provider assessments.

The July Court of Appeals decision overturned the non-economic damage cap passed with significant bipartisan support in the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Jim Doyle in 2006. WHA, together with the Wisconsin Medical Society and American Medical Association filed a joint amicus brief with the Court of Appeals in 2015 supporting the constitutionality of the non-economic damage cap.

In the July Court of Appeals majority opinion, Judge Joan Kessler wrote, “We are left with literally no rational factual basis in the record before us which supports the Legislature’s determination that the $750,000 limitation on noneconomic damages is necessary or appropriate to promote any of the stated legislative objectives.”

The Court of Appeals decision overturns the lower court decision in this case by Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Cohen that found the non-economic damage cap generally constitutional but unconstitutional for the particular plaintiff in this case. Judge Cohen reached a different conclusion than the Court of Appeals regarding whether the Legislature had a rational, factual basis for establishing the non-economic damage cap.

“[T]he Court has conducted a thoughtful examination of the statutory scheme and determined that the Cap is rationally related to the Legislature’s goals,” stated Judge Cohen in the 2014 lower court decision in this case on the facial constitutionality of the caps. “Studies, reports, and testimony were considered by the Legislature, which then saw fit to advance four specific goals supported by this evidence. That some studies were inconclusive is not enough to show there is no rational basis here. Plaintiffs must disprove the basis for every ‘plausible policy reason’ for the challenged classification. Having reviewed the documentation on which the Legislature relied, the Court cannot say that the goals articulated are ‘wholly irrelevant.’ The documents on which the Legislature relied contain evidence to reasonably support each goal.”

Currently, Wisconsin’s noneconomic damage cap is technically now unconstitutional statewide as a result of the Court of Appeals decision. A decision from the Supreme Court is expected sometime in 2018.

This story originally appeared in the November 17, 2017 edition of WHA Newsletter