New Mexico’s Arbitrary Cap on Malpractice Claims

In the 1970s, the New Mexico legislature enacted the Medical Malpractice Act because of a perceived, but mistaken, belief that doctors were having trouble obtaining medical malpractice insurance in New Mexico.  There is no evidence to suggest that doctors were having trouble obtaining liability insurance in New Mexico prior to the Act.  Rather, the legislature’s knee jerk reaction was one of several instances of what’s been dubbed “tort reform.” Tort reform is a movement by private industry to villainize our civil judicial system by creating a false public narrative that lawsuits were out of control and that outrageous jury verdicts had become so prevalent that businesses were suffering. 

            We are living in a time when corporate profits are thriving, and the insurance industry is booming.  The business of healthcare is no exception and there is no evidence that lawsuits are hurting New Mexicans’ healthcare.  In fact, the Albuquerque Journal recently published an article stating several health care executives in New Mexico acknowledge that insurance premiums are not a major factor dissuading doctors from residing here. Some would argue that lawsuits create an important check on healthcare by holding bad actors accountable and ensuring that providers give New Mexicans the best care they can.

            So, how does the Medical Malpractice Act solve this imagined problem? 

It limits the amount of recovery that an injured person or their family can recover to $600,000.00 plus reasonable medical expenses from negligent medical providers who qualify under the Act.[1]  That’s $600,000.00 for pain and suffering, value of life, lost relationships, and lost wages.  For example, if your husband or wife dies due to negligence, you’ve lost your teammate in life, your children lost a parent, and you’ve lost the financial support of your spouse, but unfortunately $600,000.00 is the most you and your family are entitled to.  The legislature has not modified the cap since 1995, when it raised the cap from $500,000.00 to the current cap of $600,000.00.  Working families have seen more than 20 years of inflation, but the amount of money you and your family are entitled to hasn’t changed at all. 

            So, what are the implications of the cap? 

            Honestly, the cap functions as the government’s way of telling New Mexicans like you that it knows best and that your judgment doesn’t matter.  In a typical medical malpractice trial, the amount a defendant must pay is determined by a jury – people like you. 

So if the defendant did not do anything wrong? The jury can say so. 

The plaintiff is faking? The jury can say so.

The defendant did do something wrong, but the plaintiff’s injury wasn’t that bad and the amount of damages was only $10,000? The jury can say so. 

The defendant wrongfully killed a single mother of 5 children who made $50,000.00 a year to support them? What the jury thinks doesn’t matter – those five kids can only ever get $120,000.00 each.  Yet, even that’s way too optimistic because those five kids had to go to trial to prove their case and lawsuits are expensive.  The defendant has little incentive to settle the case early because their worst day in court is $600,000.00.  Why would they pay their worst day in court upfront? To win a trial, the children had to pay court expenses, expert fees, lawyers, and taxes.  When all is said and done, those kids would be extremely lucky to walk away with half the cap.

            The truth is the cap only hurts the most injured and the individuals most in need.  People who have minor injuries do not feel the effects of the Medical Malpractice Act like those who are truly and catastrophically harmed.  The Act exists because the legislature was trying to fix an imaginary problem and it did not trust that you – and people like you – had the sense and judgment to determine what the proper award of damages should be for a given case.  Worse yet, the cap hasn’t been changed in over 20 years which means that the amount of money that the legislature intended to make available is now substantially less than what is practically available.  $600,000.00 went a whole lot farther in 1995 than it does today.

            For all of these reasons, we should be demanding that our legislature repeal the Medical Malpractice Act.  Our government should not be substituting its judgment arbitrarily over the judgment of reasonable members of the public who spent their time listening to all the facts and considering all of the circumstances of a case before rending a verdict.  But at the very least, our legislature needs to raise the cap limits so that people who are horribly injured or killed can have a meaningful remedy under the law.


[1] It is extremely important to note that not all medical providers are qualified under the Medical Malpractice Act.  If a provider is not qualified under the Act, then there is not limitation on damages.

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