The Utah Supreme Court struck down the Utah medical malpractice cap in wrongful death cases. The high court ruled unanimously that the cap is unconstitutional in cases where medical malpractice caused death.

Almost 30 years ago, the Utah Legislature passed a cap on noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, in medical malpractice cases. The Utah Health Care Malpractice Act says an injured person can recover for noneconomic damages up to $450,000. But lawmakers never explicitly accounted for the state constitution’s prohibition of such caps in wrongful-death cases.

Wrongful Death Caps Unconstitutional

This week the high court resolved the conflict. The Utah Supreme Court’s decision says article XVI, section 5 trumps the malpractice act. The court limited its holding to the application of the medical malpractice cap to wrongful death cases and said the decision has no application in cases where the alleged medical malpractice does not result in death.

FTCA Case Tosses Caps in Utah

The decision was issued at the request of U.S. District Judge Dee Benson, who is presiding over a medical malpractice wrongful death case filed against the United States by the parents of military veteran Gregory Lee Smith. The suit claims Smith, who died in 2010 days after undergoing back surgery at the VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City, was prematurely discharged from the hospital and that his standard of care fell below the generally accepted standard. Judge Benson asked the Utah Supreme Court to answer whether the cap on noneconomic damages applies to claims of wrongful death caused by medical malpractice and if so, whether that limitation is permissible under the state constitution. Proceedings in the federal lawsuit against the VA will go forward to resolve the question of whether medical malpractice caused Smith’s death. As a result, Smith’s family is no longer limited to the $450,000 cap for pain and suffering damages against the VA for causing Smith’s death.