Cap on noneconomic damages nixed in Utah wrongful-death cases

Supreme Court • Noneconomic reparations cap unconstitutional if one dies due to malpractice.

| Courtesy photo Gregory Lee Smith

Nearly three decades ago, the Utah Legislature imposed a cap on noneconomic damages, such as loss of companionship, in medical malpractice cases.

But there was a problem: In amending the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act in 1986 to set the limit, lawmakers never explicitly accounted for the state constitution's prohibition of such caps in wrongful-death cases.

This week, the state Supreme Court resolved the conflict by ruling unanimously that the cap is unconstitutional in the "narrow subset of cases" where medical malpractice has resulted in death.

Article XVI, section 5 in the Utah Constitution says the amount of damages that can by recovered for injuries "shall not be subject to any statutory limitation."

But the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act says an injured person can recover for noneconomic losses to compensate for pain, suffering and inconvenience — but only up to $450,000.

The high court's decision, handed down Tuesday, says article XVI, section 5 trumps the malpractice act. Noneconomic damages — which are designed to compensate for the loss of the assistance, association, care, comfort, companionship, nurture, pleasure, protection and support of the deceased — cannot be limited because they were available at the time the state constitution was adopted, the Supreme Court said.

The court said its holding has no application in cases where the alleged medical malpractice does not result in death.

The decision was issued at the request of U.S. District Judge Dee Benson, who is presiding over a medical malpractice lawsuit filed against the United States by the parents of military veteran Gregory Lee Smith. The suit claims Smith, who died in 2010 days after undergoing back surgery at the VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City, was prematurely discharged from the hospital and that his standard of care fell below the generally accepted standard.

The lawsuit alleges negligence and wrongful death and seeks an unspecified amount of money for Smith heirs in damages — including loss of support, loss of care and solicitude for the welfare of the family, loss of comfort, loss of inheritance, emotional distress, and loss of society, love, companionship, protection, and affection.

Noting that a motion in the case raised questions concerning Utah law, Benson asked the Supreme Court to answer whether the cap on noneconomic damages applies to claims of wrongful death caused by medical malpractice and if so, whether that limitation is permissible under the state constitution.

Proceedings in the federal lawsuit were put on hold pending the ruling, which does not resolve the question of whether medical malpractice caused Smith's death.

Craig Pankratz, a lawyer who represents Smith's parents, noted that wrongful-death cases are brought on behalf of the deceased person's heirs.

"It's for their losses," he said. "Ultimately, it's for the lost relationship."


Twitter: @PamelaMansonSLC