• Is House Bill 4600 Good For Your 'HEALTH'?
  • September 24, 2003
  • Law Firm: Plunkett Cooney - Detroit Office
  • In our November 2001 issue of Healthcare Law, we discussed the important, yet unanswered question of whether the non-economic damages caps established in MCL 600.1483 apply to wrongful death cases. Due to recent activity in the Michigan Legislature, however, we might not have to wait much longer for a decision.

    On Sept. 26, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Help Efficient Accessible, Low Cost, Timely Heath Care Act of 2002 (HEALTH). HEALTH's provisions apply to "health care lawsuits," which include all types of medical malpractice cases, including wrongful death. This is significant because HEALTH, if passed by the U.S. Senate, expressly states that it will preempt state law, unless a state law imposes stricter limitations on damages and greater protections from liability for health care providers.

    The main provision of HEALTH that would affect recovery in Michigan wrongful death cases is its caps provision. HEALTH would not place limits on economic damages recovery. However, it would limit non-economic damages to $250,000 and punitive damages to double the amount of economic damages or $250,000, whichever is greater, in all health care lawsuits.

    Currently in Michigan, the applicability of the non-economic damages caps, prescribed in MCL 600.1483 to wrongful death cases, is uncertain. This will no longer be the case if the U.S. Senate passes HEALTH because Michigan would then be required to apply HEALTH's non-economic damages cap to damages in wrongful death cases. Other provisions of HEALTH would greatly affect all health care lawsuits in a variety of ways.

    First, section four of HEALTH would only allow several liability, making each named party in a health care lawsuit liable for the amount of damages proportional to the parties' responsibility. Section four would greatly affect state law because presently, Michigan law does not extend its abolition of joint liability in tort actions to medical malpractice claims (MCL 600.2956; MCL 600.6304). Michigan's refusal to extend the abolition of joint liability to medical malpractice claims offers health care providers less protection than HEALTH, which would result in allowing only several liability in health care lawsuits. Thus, the abolition of joint liability would have to extend to medical malpractice claims under HEALTH.

    Second, section five of HEALTH would limit contingency fee awards for plaintiffs' attorneys and limit the time within which patients and their families can file health care lawsuits to three years from the date of injury or one year after the claimant discovers, or should have discovered the injury.

    Third, HEALTH would also affect drug manufacturer and distributor liability. Under section seven of HEALTH, punitive damages awards would be barred in an action against the manufacturer or distributor of a pharmaceutical or medical product for harm such products allegedly caused as long as the product complies with Food and Drug Administration standards.

    The main debate over HEALTH's passage centers on whom the true beneficiaries of HEALTH's provisions are -- the patients or the health care providers, insurance companies, and drug manufacturers and distributors. American Medical Association President, Yank D. Coble Jr., a supporter of HEALTH, asserts that medical liability insurance is too expensive for many physicians and the cost of defending against lawsuits drives the cost of insurance premiums too high, creating devastating results for patients. Michigan House Representative John Conyers, however, claims that the bill really helps insurance companies, HMOs, and drug manufacturers and distributors by capping their liability.

    We'll keep an eye out for the U.S. Senate's actions on HEALTH. If you would like to read the HEALTH Act, visit the Thomas Legislative Information System website at www.thomas.loc.gov and search by bill number, H.R. 4600.