Despite a jury award of $5 million, the family of a 33-year-old Michigan man who bled to death while being transferred from one hospital to another will get only $359,000 in noneconomic damages under a state cap law. The man was admitted to the hospital with a broken leg after a car accident. While his leg was splinted, he was transferred to a hospital 40 miles away. Before the man was transferred, a nurse had noted in his chart that he was “spurting blood” and a medical technician noted he was losing “copious amounts of blood.” Despite the warnings, that man was transferred in violation of Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act of 1986 which requires emergency rooms to screen patients and prevent discharges and transfers of patients with serious medical conditions. In this man’s case, he went into cardiac arrest on the transfer and was later pronounced dead.
The man’s widow was awarded $5 million by a Michigan jury, however the 6th circuit reduced the award to $359,000 on appeal, due to Michigan’s cap on noneconomic damages. This is a prime example of why tort reform is contrary to notions of fairness and justice. In this case a very young man was allowed to bleed to death due to easily avoidable miscommunication and negligence of hospital staff.
The large disparity in what the jury awarded the widow and what the law allowed the widow to recover demonstrates that there are two sides to the so-called tort reform debate. While doctors often complain of frivolous lawsuits, the fact remains that many cases are screened out of the system before a jury even has a chance to consider the facts. In fact, if a case goes to jury, only one-third of plaintiffs will prevail. On the other hand, in a case like this, the award allowed by applicable state law is grossly lower than what a jury of peers believes the man’s estate is entitled to recover.