In its opinion filed on March 15, 2021, the Supreme Court of the State of New Mexico (“New Mexico Supreme Court”) stated: “This case requires us to consider whether the cap on all damages other than medical care and punitive damages under the Medical Malpractice Act (MMA), NMSA 1978, §§ 41-5-1 to -29 (1976, as amended through 2015), violates the right to trial by jury guaranteed by Article II, Section 12 of the New Mexico Constitution … we hold that the MMA nonmedical, nonpunitive damages cap does not violate Article II, Section 12, and we reverse the district court’s denial of Defendants’ motion to conform the judgment in accordance with the statutory cap. See § 41-5-6(A).”
New Mexico Medical Malpractice Act
A qualified health care provider under the MMA must pay an annual surcharge into the statutorily-created patient’s compensation fund and either provide proof of professional liability insurance of at least $200,000 per occurrence or, for an individual health care provider, have a continuous deposit of $600,000 with the state superintendent of insurance. In exchange for these financial contributions and assurances, the MMA provides qualified health care providers with various benefits. Among those benefits, the MMA caps nonmedical, nonpunitive damages awards at $600,000 and limits the qualified health care provider’s personal liability to $200,000. Any remaining amount of the judgment exceeding the personal liability cap is paid out of the patient’s compensation fund.
Section 41-5-6(A) provides that, “[e]xcept for punitive damages and medical care and related benefits, the aggregate dollar amount recoverable by all persons for or arising from any injury or death to a patient as a result of malpractice shall not exceed six hundred thousand dollars ($600,000) per occurrence.” The amount recoverable for a malpractice claim under the MMA does not include awards for future medical expenses, but if the jury finds that a successful plaintiff is in need of future medical care, that plaintiff may receive payment for reasonable future medical expenses as they are incurred. Awards for those future medical expenses are not capped. In other words, the jury in an MMA action determines whether a plaintiff is entitled to future damages but does not award a specific amount following the trial. The amount awarded for future medical care is established in subsequent evidentiary hearings. Section 41-5-7.
New Mexico Supreme Court Opinion
The New Mexico Supreme Court stated, “The procedural differences between MMA and non-MMA claims demonstrate that the Legislature intended to change how the courts facilitate and administer remedies when a plaintiff brings a medical malpractice action against a qualified health care provider under the MMA … However, in passing the MMA, the Legislature did not change the essential substantive elements that a plaintiff must prove in order to hold any health care provider liable for medical negligence. Put differently, with respect to the required elements a plaintiff must prove in order to succeed in either an MMA claim for medical malpractice or a common-law claim for medical negligence, the core substance of the causes of action is the same. The identical substantive jury instructions for both MMA and non-MMA cases belie any argument to the contrary … we conclude that a claim under the MMA is “more generally described” as a cause of action in medical negligence … we hold that the constitutional right to trial by jury attaches to causes of action brought under the MMA.”
“As we have previously stated, Article II, Section 12 provides that “[t]he right of trial by jury as it has heretofore existed shall be secured to all and remain inviolate.” To interpret this constitutional provision, we must determine (a) the proper definition of the term “inviolate” and (b) the scope of the right to trial by jury in civil actions at the time the New Mexico Constitution took effect … Our historical analysis of the evolving role of the jury reveals that though the jury may once have exercised an ability to shape the legal as well as factual resolutions in a civil case, by the time the New Mexico Constitution took effect in 1912, the jury’s role was limited to that of fact-finder. Based on this analysis, we conclude that the right to trial by jury is satisfied when evidence is presented to a jury, which then deliberates and returns a verdict based on its factual findings. The legal consequence of that verdict is a matter of law, which the Legislature has the authority to shape.”
“In passing the damages cap of Section 41-5-6(A), the Legislature restricted the scope of the available legal remedy for injury resulting from the medical malpractice of a qualified health care provider. However, nothing in Section 41-5-6 abridges Plaintiff’s right to present evidence before a jury for “a fair and equitable resolution” of the facts of the case … Therefore we hold that the MMA nonmedical, nonpunitive damages cap of Section 41-5-6(A) does not violate Plaintiff’s right to a jury trial under Article II, Section 12.”
“For the foregoing reasons, we hold that the MMA nonmedical, nonpunitive damages cap does not violate the constitutional right to trial by jury of Article II, Section 12. We remand this case to the district court to conform the judgment in accordance with Section 41-5-6(A).”
Source Siebert v. Okun, No. S-1-SC-37231.
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