Supreme Court Upholds $750,000 Limit on Noneconomic Damages in Med Malpractice Cases

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in a 5-2 decision (Mayo v. Wisconsin Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund) has upheld Wisconsin’s $750,000 limit on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases. The Court determined that the cap is constitutional because the legislature had a rational basis in enacting the cap statute to ensure affordable and accessible health care in Wisconsin.

Notably, neither the statutes nor the Court’s decision preclude plaintiffs from being compensated for their injuries. Current law only limits the amount of noneconomic damages, i.e., pain and suffering, a plaintiff may receive at $750,000. There is no limit on the amount of damages a plaintiff can receive for his or her physical injuries.

The case arose from a septic infection resulting in the amputation of the plaintiff’s limbs. The lower court did not find negligence, but instead rested liability on improper informed consent regarding diagnosis and treatment options. The jury awarded the plaintiff $15 million in noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, and $1.5 million to the plaintiff’s husband for loss of society and companionship. Unaffected is the reported $8.8 million award for economic damages, which has no statutory limitation.

Ruling the cap constitutional, the Supreme Court remanded the case to circuit court to impose the $750,000 cap on the plaintiffs’ noneconomic damages.

The decision also clarified the definition and application of the “rational basis test” for courts considering reversal of legislative enactments. Courts use the rational basis test to determine the constitutionality of a statute based on whether the statute appears to have a rational basis in achieving the legislature’s objective in writing it. Since Ferdon v. Wis. Patient Comp. Fund (holding that the previous $350,000 cap was facially unconstitutional), the courts have been unclear regarding the “rational basis” test as it relates to an equal protection claim. The Mayo decision reversed new scrutiny level created by Ferdon called “rational basis with teeth.”