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Utah Supreme Court Narrowly Upholds Malpractice Cap

Utah Supreme Court Narrowly Upholds Malpractice Cap

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- In a 3-2 decision, the Utah Supreme Court has upheld the state's medical malpractice cap, saying it wasn't the court's place to decide if the Legislature's justification for it was valid.

The majority said the 1986 statute has not unreasonably or arbitrarily limited the rights of patients to recover damages when injured by physicians.

Justices Matthew B. Durrant, Jill N. Parrish and Michael J. Wilkins were in the majority in upholding a district judge who slashed nearly in half a jury's $2.2 million award to a woman whose son suffered brain damage in 1997 during delivery by a Tooele physician.

Chief Justice Christine M. Durham and Justice Ronald E. Nehring were in the minority in the ruling handed down last week.

Plaintiffs' attorney Paul M. Simmons said his clients, Heidi Judd and son Athan of Tooele have not decided whether to appeal. They could seek either a rehearing before the same court or pursue a federal appeal.

The majority opinion quoted the Legislature's intent: "The Legislature finds and declares that the number of suits and claims for damages and the amount of judgments and settlements arising from health care has increased greatly in recent years.

"The effect ... is increased health-care cost, both through the health-care providers passing the cost of premiums to the patient and through the provider's practicing defensive medicine because he views a patient as a potential adversary in a lawsuit."

The court said the truth of those findings was a matter of some dispute, but, "we will not undertake the same investigation as the Legislature, reviewing its data-gathering methods and conclusions to determine whether the state legislative findings are perfectly correct.

"A court is ill-suited to undertake investigation of such a nature."

In her dissent, Durham called the cap on malpractice awards "the Legislature's invasion of individual rights."

Durham said the most recent statistics from the National Practitioner Data Bank, which tracks jury awards, ranked Utah 50th among the states and the District of Columbia in the size of jury awards.

"This fact undermines the notion that jury verdicts have anything to do with premiums in this state," Durham wrote.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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