June 24, 2014
On June 9, the California Court of Appeal based in San Francisco issued its precedential opinion in Chan v. Curran, fully upholding various provisions of California's landmark Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) against constitutional attacks by California’s trial attorneys.
The California Medical Association (CMA), together with a broad coalition of health care providers, including the American Medical Association, the California Hospital Association and the California Dental Association, had filed an amicus brief last year supporting the constitutionality of the non-economic damages cap of MICRA.
This appeal was the latest in a protracted line of cases challenging MICRA's constitutionality since the Legislature enacted the statute in 1975. The California Supreme Court on numerous occasions has previously upheld the constitutionality of MICRA's cost saving provisions, including MICRA's $250,000 cap on non-economic damages. Numerous intermediate courts of appeal have also upheld MICRA.
Despite Supreme Court and court of appeal precedents, the plaintiff appealed, arguing that the MICRA cap on non-economic damages violated her constitutional rights to equal protection, due process and trial by jury. In this published opinion, the Court of Appeal characterized all of Chan’s arguments as “ultimately grounded on the assertion she is entitled to seek non-economic damages sufficient to cover attorney fees.” This was a novel twist that the trial lawyers came up with – to argue that the MICRA cap essentially deprived injured plaintiffs of their day in court because few attorneys would take on contingency cases subject to the $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages. To this, the court responded in its opinion, “[n]o California court has ever endorsed such a proposition, and, as we discuss, it is contrary to many well-established legal principles.”
The court went on to reject each and every one of Chan’s constitutional arguments. It observed that California courts have consistently rejected constitutional attacks on MICRA because they are contrary to well-established legal principles for determining the constitutionality of economic and social welfare legislation under the extremely deferential rational basis test. The court discussed previous California Supreme Court cases upholding section 3333.2 and other MICRA provisions against similar constitutional challenges. The court also rejected Chan’s argument that MICRA’s constitutionality should be reexamined due to “changed circumstances” in today’s medical malpractice insurance climate; the court held that she failed to demonstrate that the circumstances leading to MICRA’s enactment no longer exist. The court acknowledged that MICRA may inhibit medical malpractice plaintiffs from finding counsel willing to accept cases on a contingency basis, but concluded that that result did not offend due process. Finally, the court held that the Supreme Court and other Courts of Appeal had previously considered and properly rejected Chan’s argument that MICRA infringed on the right to a jury trial.
In conclusion, the Court of Appeal determined that “the legitimate debate over the wisdom of MICRA’s noneconomic damages cap remains a matter for the Legislature and state electorate.” Last November, California voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 46, by a two to one margin, which would have raised the MICRA cap on non-economic damages.
Contact: CMA legal information line, (800) 786-4262 or firstname.lastname@example.org.