On the subject of tort damage caps, the film Hot Coffee tells the story of a Nebraska couple who gave birth to twin sons, one who was perfectly healthy, the other who was born with severe physical and mental disabilities. The couple’s OB/GYN had negligently failed to recognize a problem during the pregnancy which only occurs in cases involving twins with one placenta. This was despite Colin’s mother complaining to the doctor that she felt something was wrong with the pregnancy. When the OB/GYN’s partner discovered the problem days later, Colin’s mother was rushed to the hospital, where a delay in performing an emergency C-section (she waited two hours, while the standard of care demanded it be done within 10 minutes of her arrival) caused further oxygen deprivation to one of her twins.
Colin’s parents won their medical malpractice lawsuit, but were shocked to learn that their damages would be limited to a fraction of what the jury awarded due to an arbitrary state tort damages cap. Colin requires lifelong medical care, including multiple surgeries, for which the jury awarded them $5.6 million. Under Nebraska’s “tort reform” damages cap, which applied to both economic (medical bills, wage loss) and non-economic (pain and suffering) damages, they could only receive $1.25 million. The trial judge ruled that the Nebraska law capping damages was unconstitutional, as it deprived the plaintiffs of their right to a jury trial. This ruling was later overturned by the Nebraska Supreme Court, which held that the cap was valid. Colin’s parents must now raise their disabled son with less than one-quarter of the money necessary to provide him the care he needs.