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Hawaii Supreme Court Addresses Med-Mal Damages Cap

November 12, 2010
Bonnie Navin

The Hawaii Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments on the constitutional validity of the state’s cap on medical malpractice damages. The cap, which applies to most tort cases, provides that “physical pain and suffering” damages in Hawaii are limited to $375,000.

The case at issue involved a 14 year old girl who alleged that a doctor had given her high-dose steroid treatments, not commonly accepted in the medical community, which had resulted in her myopathy, and left her unable to breathe, eat, or speak on her own for months. The plaintiff is now permanently disabled and will never walk again.

At trial, the jury awarded $2 million for “pain and suffering”. The trial court reduced that amount to the $375,000 permitted by the statute, although the judge did acknowledge that it was not clear if any of the money awarded was compensation for emotional distress. Both parties appealed, and the Hawaii Supreme Court agreed to take the case directly.

At oral argument, the plaintiff asserted that the cap was unconstitutional because it usurps the power of the jury and otherwise violates the separation of powers and the rights to due process and equal protection. Plaintiff argued that the cap “…treats the most severely injured victims differently than those victims with less serious injuries,” as only the latter are fully compensated.

Plaintiff’s counsel expressed his hope that the Hawaii court will strike down the cap, and that other states will follow. He added that such decisions will send the message to legislatures that damages caps are not an effective means of addressing the problems they are trying to solve. Ray v. Kapiolani Med. Specialists, No. 29988 (Haw. October 21, 2010).