Some Fear Nevada Court May End Malpractice Limits

August 4, 2010

Some Nevada doctors say they’re worried a state court could overturn a law limiting the amount of damages paid out in medical malpractice cases.

The Nevada Supreme Court is being asked to consider a 2008 lawsuit brought against Spring Valley Hospital and Dr. Mahmud A. Sheikh on behalf of the family of the late Adeline Villegas.

Attorney Peter Wetherall alleges in the lawsuit that Villegas died in 2007 after being misdiagnosed by Sheikh and then left untreated by Spring Valley Hospital staff.

In court documents, attorneys for both the hospital and Sheikh deny any liability for the death.

Wetherall is asking the court to rule that the Villegas family estate and seven surviving members would each have a separate claim or action.

At issue is one line in state law that says: “In an action for injury or death against a provider of health care based upon professional negligence, the injured plaintiff may recover non-economic damages, but the amount of non-economic damages awarded in such an action must not exceed $350,000.”

Wetherall contends the statute means that in a case involving pain and suffering there can be more than one claimant and more than one defendant, but medical practitioners argue the law means non-economic damages are capped at a total of $350,000 per event.

If Wetherall’s interpretation is correct, the Villegas family estate and her husband and six children would each have a separate claim or action against both the doctor and the hospital.

That could mean a potential damage award for pain and suffering of $5.6 million, a much bigger amount than the $350,000 defense attorneys say can be awarded.

If the court rules that the 2004 state law does cap pain and suffering at a total of $350,000 per event, Wetherall has petitioned the justices to then find the law unconstitutional, arguing it violates the equal protection guarantees of the Nevada and United States constitutions.

The chance that Nevada’s malpractice law could be overturned by Wetherall’s case has the state’s medical community asking the high court for permission to file briefs against Wetherall’s interpretation of the law. Those involved include the Nevada State Medical Association, Clark County Medical Society, Nevada Hospital Association, Southern Nevada Medical Industry Coalition, Nevada Healthcare Professionals Coalition, St. Rose Dominican Hospitals, IASIS Healthcare, Nevada Insurance Council, Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Henderson Chamber of Commerce and the Hospital Corporation of America.

Las Vegas doctor Ivan Goldsmith said he’s worried he’ll have to stop practicing in Nevada if the court overturns the limits.

“If I have to double my malpractice insurance because of this lawsuit, I’ll probably have to leave town. A lot of doctors will be hurt,” he said.

“No matter what side you’re on, this case could change, once and for all, the way both medicine and law are practiced in Las Vegas.”

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