A recent story proved just how costly poor medical care can be. Last week a jury in Nevada handed down a massive $500 million punitive damage award in a case against UnitedHealth Group. The punitive damages were on top of the $24 million that had already been awarded for compensatory damages.
The case involved an incident where a doctor’s office was responsible for infecting at least nine patients with Hepatitis C during endoscopy procedures performed in 2007. The plaintiffs blamed the doctor and their insurer for placing upwards of 50,000 people at risk for contracting a blood-borne illness.
The case was an unusual one not only because of the size of the jury award, but because the insurer was sued along with the doctor. The patients argued that United Healthcare was partially responsible given its decision to accept a low bid contract from the doctor who was responsible for the infections. United Healthcare accepted the cheap contract despite having been warned that the doctor was known for speeding through procedures and had previously placed patients at risk for blood-borne diseases. The plaintiffs argued that United Healthcare knew or should have known that the doctor was trying to make as much money as possible by quickly processing high volumes of patients.
Though the $500 million award is stunning in its size, it is actually half as much as the plaintiffs were hoping for, having asked the jury for $1 billion in punitive damages. The jury settled on a total of $500 million, $270 million being assessed to the Health Plan of Nevada and $230 million to Sierra Health Services, both UnitedHealth affiliates.
The Virginia Injury Attorney’s Perspective:
Though the amount seems stunning, the point of a punitive damage award is to punish wrongdoers so that they and others will have an incentive to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. UnitedHealth Group had revenues of $102 billion in 2011 and a profit of more than $5 billion. If the award had not been so large then it would likely not have been sufficient to force real change on the part of the company.
Virginia has a medical malpractice ceiling that is currently just over $2 million. This damage cap applies to all damages and for all the defendants in the case. This means that a settlement with one defendant reduces the maximum liability of the others, because the cap limits the total amount recoverable for an injury to a patient, regardless of the number of theories or defendants. These limits serve as unfair restrictions on what can be recovered by a patient or family that has suffered grave harm due to someone else’s bad acts.
Virginia also has a ceiling on financially punishing awards, also known as punitive damages. Virginia limits punitive damage recovery to $350,000 in every case, regardless of its severity. This means that even if a jury is outraged by a defendant’s bad conduct, its hands are tied in handing down especially punitive awards. Sadly, Virginia juries would never be allowed to hand down such a harsh award as the one discussed in this case. Despite vigorous protests, the damage caps have been upheld previously in Virginia, although several state supreme courts have ruled they are unconstitutional for one reason or another.
Potentially Helpful Info:
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