Iowa has become a target for trial attorneys from across America. Like a high-powered magnet, we are drawing high-paid lawyers to litigate in our state because they know the sky is the limit terms of jury awards – and they often face hard caps in their own backyard.
When a medical malpractice case is filed, the patient can sue for economic damages as well as noneconomic damages. To offset the potential for personal injury attorneys to seek millions of dollars in malpractice cases, 28 states have enacted caps on noneconomic damages – also known as tort reform. The monetary cap varies from state to state, as does how strictly the cap is enforced.
Iowa has no cap on total damages, and previous efforts to impose a "soft cap" for noneconomic damages have proven unimpactful. The soft cap is considered “soft” as it serves as a recommendation or guidance rather than a hard-stop limit to the amount of non-economic damages that can be awarded.
That is how an out-of-state trial attorney secured a $97.4 million medical malpractice verdict suit in Iowa City last March. More than $43 million was awarded for noneconomic damages. It is the largest malpractice judgment in Iowa history.
The clinic involved in this suit has since filed for bankruptcy. This event, a direct result of the verdict, places into question the long-term obstetrical and gynecological care options for patients in the region. Iowa has one of the lowest number of Ob/Gyns per capita in the U.S
The fear of legal action over a poor decision has the potential to force physicians to practice defensively, and exorbitant verdicts like the one in Iowa City can have detrimental impacts on the healthcare system as a whole. We know physician recruits who have withdrawn a job application based on malpractice exposure.
Without question, patients who have been injured deserve fair restitution for their loss, but it must be balanced with the needs of the broader community to maintain access to healthcare by making sure we protect the financial viability of small providers. Tort reform will not take away a patient or family’s rights to a fair trial, trial by jury, or their right to litigate. And it will not limit appropriate compensation to concrete economic damages they may receive. However, it will place reasonable caps on noneconomic damages and bring a level of consistency and common sense to out-of-control damages and demands by trial attorneys.
We applaud Governor Reynolds for making this issue a legislative priority to ensure access to healthcare throughout Iowa. We are hopeful the Iowa legislature will enact tort reform this year to place reasonable caps on intangible noneconomic damages that cannot be quantified.
Scott M. Truhlar, MD, FACR, Radiology, Partner - Radiologic Medical Services PC, Iowa City and President - Iowa Medical SocietySteven W. Churchill, MNA, CEO - Iowa Medical Society and former state legislator