The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that a one size fits all law that caps damages for malpractice at a hospital in Portland is unconstitutional. The case involved an infant who was born with a defective heart. Surgery to fix the heart was performed at the Oregon Health Sciences University Hospital in Portland. After the surgery, the child was placed in an intensive care unit to recover. While in the unit, someone carelessly shut off his oxygen, causing the child to have severe and permanent brain damage. The parents brought suit, asking the hospital to pay for their son’s medical bills, which experts predicted could easily exceed 11 million dollars. The hospital responded by admitting they committed malpractice. They admitted someone carelessly shut off the oxygen to his brain. They also didn’t dispute the need for millions of dollars in lifelong care. However, they refused to pay any bills in excess of $100,000. They based their refusal on an Oregon state law that caps damages in civil suits against the hospital at $100,000. A lower court ruled the hospital was correct and wasn’t obligated to cover more than $100,000 of the medical bills. The parents were faced with millions of dollars in bills and appealed the ruling.
The hospital argued the law was necessary to keep their costs low in medical malpractice lawsuits. As a teaching hospital and part of the Oregon State University system, they argued the law capping damages for their mistakes was important. They argued that without this law, they wouldn’t be able to do medical research or provide charity care to uninsured patients.
This argument probably didn’t make a lot of sense to the child’s parents. The reason might have been that just over the border in Washington, there is no law capping damages for hospital malpractice. If the malpractice in this case had occurred in Washington, the hospital would be responsible for all the care, not just the first $100,000. The same is true if the malpractice had occurred at the University of Washington Hospital, a teaching hospital just like the one in Oregon. The University of Washington conducts medical research and provides charity care to uninsured patients, all without any cap on damages for mistakes they make.
The Oregon Supreme Court apparently didn’t think the argument made a lot of sense either. They ruled that when someone commits malpractice, they should take responsibility for their mistake. The court struck down the law basing their ruling in part on the Oregon Constitution, Article I, section 10 which states:
“No court shall be secret, but justice shall be administered, openly and without purchase, completely and without delay, and every man shall have remedy by due course of law for injury done him in his person, property, or reputation.”
The court held that making the parents pay for the hospital’s mistake left them with no adequate remedy under the law and no way to make the hospital accept responsibility for their actions.