SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KGO) -- Most people think there is a big payday for those who win medical malpractice lawsuits for pain and suffering. But here in California, nothing could be further from the truth. In 1975, the state limited the legal rights of patients and their families who are harmed or killed by medical negligence.
Steven Olson was the victim of a medical malpractice at two years old and has had to have constant care ever since. A jury ruled in his family's favor and awarded them $7 million dollars, but that money was never seen.
"The jury awarded him $7 million for his pain and suffering. And once the jury left the room, the defense lawyer asked the judge to change the order to $250,000, which he had to do because of the statute," said Steven's dad, Scott Olson.
By law, courts cannot allow higher payments. Jury awards for pain and suffering have been frozen in time at $250,000.
"This is, you know, the loss of sight, the loss of hearing, loss of anything other than wage loss or medical bills," says Consumer Watchdog's Jamie Court. "And they set this cap at $250,000 in 1975 and it hasn't been adjusted for inflation or anything for nearly 50 years."
Although anyone can get caught up in the medical malpractice system, there is a racial justice aspect to this that looms large. Black people are more impacted by bad medical outcomes, so they are more impacted by California's malpractice laws.
"When you look at the overall process," says civil rights attorney John Burris, "you see that the health care that African-Americans get is substantially less than others get."
Charles Johnson's wife died in the hospital when she was there for the birth of their second child. Set to go to trial next month, he believes it is a case of malpractice.
"They literally add insult to injury because not only is human life capped at $250,000, it doesn't allow the family to seek justice," says Johnson.
A ballot measure this November would have allowed voters to decide if the cap should be increased, but behind-the-scenes negotiations have concluded with a deal increasing the cap. Next year, the cap will increase to $350,000 for personal injury and a half-million for wrongful death. The cap will continue increasing at $40,000 to $50,000 a year for ten years. After that, the cap will increase 2% a year.
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