Mississippi’s $500,000 cap: arbitrary, but still constitutional

Clemons v. United States, _____ (S.D. Miss. 2013)

“All grief is not equal. All pain cannot be reduced to a one-size-fits-all sum. One cannot imagine what it is like to know that the doctor right in front of you, the one who is refusing to insert a chest tube into your body even as nurses beg her to provide that treatment, is causing you to die and killing your unborn baby as you are helpless to stop her. In Mississippi, though, one’s suffering at the hands of a health care provider is worth no more than half a million dollars, no matter how egregious, and no matter if your suffering leads to your death, your unborn child’s death, and leaves your children orphans. This is offensive.” Judge Carlton W. Reeves wrote this paragraph in a very recent decision that applied Mississippi medical malpractice law in a suit adjudicated under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The judge upheld the constitutionality of Mississippi’s $500,000 cap on noneconomic damages recoverable for medical malpractice, which he properly criticized as arbitrary. This cap applies indiscriminately to all cases: there is no statutory adjustment for egregious malpractice that kills or severely injures the victim. Astonishingly, Mississippi caps noneconomic damages recoverable for torts other than medical malpractice at $1,000,000. The $500,000 cap was legislated exclusively for medical malpractice cases. Because this cap protects the entire medical industry rather than an individual entity or person, Judge Reeves decided that it does not violate Mississippi’s constitutional prohibition of special laws. The judge also Erie-guessed that the Supreme Court of Mississippi would find in that cap no violation of due process or equal protection.