Georgia Supreme Court ends malpractice caps

Following in the footsteps of Illinois, the Georgia Supreme Court on Monday ended limits to jury awards for malpractice damages.

By upholding a nearly $1.35 million award for Betty Nestlehutt, whose botched face lift in 2006 left her "permanently disfigured," the ruling reverses a 2005 law that limited awards to $350,000 against doctors and $1.05 million against multiple providers and hospitals. 

Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote that the "existence of the violative of the right to trial by jury." Adam Malone, Nestlehutt's attorney, added that democracy "depends on our ability to self-govern at the ballot box and in the jury box." 

Roy Vandiver, chairman for MAG Mutual Insurance, a malpractice insurance provider for Georgia physicians, called the ruling a "setback for Georgia citizens seeking medical care and a defeat for Georgia's citizens." Since the inception of the tort reform law in 2005, insurance premiums in the state have fallen, he said. 

Likewise, the Medical Association of Georgia called the decision "unacceptable and unsustainable. "It's...going to energize and unify
the physician community in Georgia," said Gary. C. Richter, the group's president.

Nestlehutt was awarded $115,000 for "past and future medical expenses." She and her husband will also receive $1.15 million for noneconomic damages. Dr. Harvey "Chip" Cole, Nestlehutt's surgeon during the botched procedure, appealed the ruling, calling for the Nestlehutts to receive a total of $465,000--$350,000 for the cap and $115,000 for the medical expenses.

In Illinois last month, the state's Supreme Court called caps of $500,000 against doctors and $1 million against hospitals unconstitutional. Courts in New Hampshire, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin have likewise struck down such caps. Thirty states, as well as the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, limit jury awards in malpractice cases, The New York Times reports.

To learn more:

- read this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article
- read the New York Times report
- read the Medical Association of Georgia's press release
- read the ruling, via the association's website