Landmark Decision Ensures Access to Courts, Strengthens Patients Rights

In March, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously that limits on jury awards in medical malpractice cases are unconstitutional.

“The very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury,” wrote Chief Justice Carol Hunstein. “[The cap] clearly nullifies the jury’s findings of fact regarding damages and thereby undermines the jury’s basic function.”

The ruling effectively struck down the centerpiece of Georgia’s sweeping 2005 tort reform law, Senate Bill 3, which capped noneconomic awards – including those for pain and suffering – at $350,000.

At the time SB 3 passed, supporters said it would reduce medical malpractice insurance premiums and attract doctors from across the country. However, between 2005 and 2008, premiums fell only 7 percent and the number of physicians per capita remained essentially the same.

“In simplest terms, SB 3 limited accountability for medical negligence and padded the profit margins of large insurers,” said Georgia Watch executive director Angela Speir Phelps. “This ruling stops the government from trampling on the rights of malpractice victims and our citizen juries.”

The court’s decision upholds a $1.265 million jury award to Betty Nestlehutt, a Marietta real estate agent. Nestlehutt, now 75, was left permanently disfigured after a plastic surgeon with Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery botched what should have been a routine face-lift procedure. Nestlehutt was so severely injured that her lawyer, Adam Malone, said she had trouble leaving her house.

Nestlehutt was awarded $900,000 for pain and suffering by a Fulton County jury. Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery appealed that amount on grounds that it violated SB 3. The trial judge sided with the jury award and declared the $350,000 cap unconstitutional, setting the stage for the high court ruling.

Georgia Watch deputy director Danny Orrock says the Supreme Court decision protects patients and their constitutional rights.

“It restores the promise of justice for all and the rights of all Georgians – young and old, rich and poor – to access the courts,” says Orrock.

The Nestlehutt decision likely means legislators will renew efforts to impose restrictions on malpractice victims. Lawmakers are already discussing the possibility of a constitutional amendment addressing caps on damages, similar to one Texas passed in 2003.

In any case, much of SB 3 remains intact. The Supreme Court has recently upheld two key provisions of the law. The first makes it nearly impossible for patients to recover damages in cases involving emergency room care by requiring that no physician or health care provider shall be held liable unless it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the physician or health care provider’s actions showed gross negligence. The second forces the losing side in a lawsuit to pay the other side’s legal fees, a practice that can discourage victims from bringing legitimate claims to court.

Georgia Watch remains strongly opposed to any legislation that impedes access to the courts, including measures that limit the amount an attorney can collect from a settlement.

We remain firmly committed to protecting malpractice victims and fighting for greater access to the courts.