On Thursday, the court issued an opinion in a case brought against Winchester Pediatric Clinic in the Western District of Virginia. The case concerns a medical malpractice lawsuit regarding the negligent treatment of a minor child. The plaintiff, having already settled with one party involved with the medical treatment for the maximum currently permissible, sought a declaratory judgment that the cap on medical malpractice damages in Virginia is unconstitutional prior to proceeding to trial with the other party.
The plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident, which caused damage to their spine and neurological issues. The plaintiff received radiological examinations which failed to detect the full extent of the damage as well as treatments from the Pediatric center which failed treat the underlying injury. The patient later went to a different facility, which detected the damages and performed extensive surgical work to partially correct the injuries. However, the current and projected damages are estimated at $3 million, which is more than the $2 million medical malpractice damages cap permissible in Virginia. The plaintiff has already settled with the radiologist involved in the treatment for the maximum amount of the cap, which means that any decision against the pediatric center would be reduced to zero under the cap.
The plaintiff brought the suit for declaratory judgment against the cap, stating that the cap violated a number of constitutional provisions, including the Seventh Amendment of the United States Constitution; the guarantees in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution to due process, access to the courts, and equal protection; the Virginia constitutional guarantee of equal protection; the separation of powers mandated by the Virginia Constitution; and the prohibition against special legislation mandated by the Virginia Constitution. Most specifically, the plaintiff contends that the cap violates the right to a jury trial, as any reduction by the cap prevents the jury from determining the proper amount of damages, especially in a case like this where any liability on the part of the pediatric center will be moot due to the other settlement.
The court noted that the cap provision has previously been found to be constitutional in both the Virginia Supreme Court as well as in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. While noting that the plaintiff has quoted some further caselaw development since the last decision on this topic, the court noted that a decision could not be reached on the constitutionality of the provision as there was no concreteness to the liability. As the liability of the pediatric center has not been either adjudicated or settled, any pronouncement of the court would be premature. A plaintiff cannot seek to avoid the expense of a trial to determine liability by seeking a determination as to the possible amount of damages first.