Nevada lawmakers agreed to cap noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits at $350,000, but the compromise measure contains a number of exemptions including cases involving death, brain damage, paralysis, total blindness, amputation and sterility. The legislation also would exempt cases involving gross malpractice and "clear and convincing" evidence that an award above the $350,000 cap is justified. Former Lt. Gov. Lonnie Hammargren, M.D., now a Las Vegas neurosurgeon, told local media that the various exclusions potentially "cover everything I do -- I don't like it." The compromise was reached yesterday, during the first day of a special legislative session called by Gov. Kenny Guinn to address concerns about skyrocketing malpractice premiums. The proposal must go through a legislative hearing process, which could take several days, before the state Senate and Assembly vote on versions of the same bill.
In the most extreme example of the impact of steep premium increases in Nevada, about 58 orthopedic surgeons at University Medical Center, Las Vegas, walked off the job in early July, resulting in a 10-day shutdown of the state's only Level I trauma center. The trauma center re-opened only after the physicians signed contracts temporarily limiting their liability to $50,000 under state law. Under the compromise legislation, the $50,000 liability limit would apply to any doctor working in a public trauma center. The number of medical malpractice lawsuits in Clark County, Nev., increased about 440% between 1990 and 2001, more than four times the county's population growth, according to a study commissioned by the state Legislature. Of the 62 cases that reached trial between 1966 and 2001, plaintiffs won 22 and received total damages of about $1.8 million per lawsuit. -- by Michael Romano