Bill gradually raising California medical malpractice awards as high as $1 million advances

(The Center Square) – Legislation to raise limits on types of California malpractice lawsuits advanced to the State Assembly after Senate lawmakers approved it Thursday.

The legislation, Assembly Bill 35, would significantly increase existing caps for non-economic damages, like pain and suffering, in medical negligence cases in the coming years. Current law does not cap the amount of money patients can win for economic damages, but it does limit the recovery for non-economic damages to $250,000.

AB 35 would increase the limit to $350,000 for non-death cases and $500,000 for wrongful death cases. The new limits would take effect in January 2023, and there would be incremental increases over the next decade that would raise limits to $750,000 for non-death cases and $1 million for wrongful death cases. A 2% annual inflationary adjustment would apply after 10 years.

No organizations opposed the bill in committee hearings.

Senator Thomas Umberg, D-Santa Ana, a co-author of the bill, called the legislation a “long-overdue reform” to the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), which went into effect in 1975 and has remained unchanged for nearly five decades.

Umberg told The Center Square in an interview that the compensation levels for medical negligence under MICRA “weren’t adequate before,” and this bill “is an effort to make them more adequate.”

During Thursday’s vote in the Senate, lawmakers highlighted how the legislation represents a “historic compromise” after years of attempts to reform and revise MICRA. The legislation also avoids a fight at the ballot box in November, where voters would have been presented with an already-approved ballot initiative that wanted to tie the limits to inflation.

Scott Olsen, a board member for Consumer Watchdog and proponent of the ballot initiative, said he would agree to withdraw the initiative from the ballot if the legislature passes these reforms and they are signed into law before June 29.

Olsen, whose son was harmed by medical negligence in the 1990s, became a proponent of the ballot initiative after existing MICRA limits reduced a jury verdict to award $7 million in damages to $250,000.

“Although it is too late for our family to benefit from this change, other families should not have to endure the same suffering ours has over the last three decades,” Olsen said in a statement when the agreement was reached, according to a news release from Consumer Watchdog.

Senator Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who is himself a physician, threw his support behind the bill Thursday but noted that it would put “upward pressure” because the bill raises caps on health care costs.

“This will raise the overhead costs and liability costs for clinics, hospitals and physicians, but it does do it in a way that is predictable and manageable in the terms of this agreement,” Pan told lawmakers.

Other lawmakers said Thursday that raising the cap is the “right thing to do” for patients who have been harmed as a result of medical negligence.

The bill is supported by the California Medical Association, the Consumer Attorneys of California and Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said he would sign it into law, the Associated Press reported.

The bill now heads to the Assembly after passing the Senate.

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