In a unanimous decision, the New Mexico Supreme Court has simultaneously recognized a constitutional right to a trial by jury in medical malpractice cases, while also upholding specific caps on damages that a jury may award to successful Plaintiffs.
Under the State of New Mexico’s Medical Malpractice Act (MMA), all damages other than medical care and punitive damages for claims brought under the MMA are capped at $600,000 per occurrence. While this is a draconian limitation on the damages that a jury can award for things such as pain and suffering in these types of cases, the Court ruled in Siebert v. Okun that these constraints do not interfere with the “inviolate” right to a trial by jury.
It is important to note that the New Mexico Legislature passed sweeping reforms to the Medical Malpractice Act, including an increase to the damages available. If you or a loved one have been a victim of medical malpractice, please contact us today to set up a free consultation.
In determining whether a trial by jury is a right afforded in MMA cases, the Supreme Court applied a test analyzing the common law and use of juries prior in New Mexico prior to it joining the union in 1912. The central question before the Court was whether a Plaintiff bringing a MMA claim would have been entitled to a trial by jury when the New Mexico Constitution was ratified. The Court held that MMA cases, though brought pursuant to a statutory scheme enacted long after statehood, are “more generally described” as common law medical negligence claims that would have been tried to a jury before statehood. In doing so, the Supreme Court overruled the decision of the Court of Appeals in Salopek v. Friedman which held that there was no right to a jury trial in MMA cases.
With the right to a trial by jury recognized for MMA claims, the Court then had to decide whether the MMA statutory caps on damages violate this right. Once again reviewing cases from before and after statehood, as well as those from other jurisdictions, the Court held that the role of a jury at the time of the adoption of the New Mexico Constitution, as it is today, was that of fact finder. The Court clarified that a statutory damages cap does not interfere with the jury’s fact-finding role, and that a right to a trial by jury is not necessarily a right to maximum compensation.
The Court, however, did leave open future challenges to the MMA damages cap, e.g. on equal protection or substantive due process grounds. The likelihood of such a challenge has probably decreased significantly in light of the Legislature’s revisions to the MMA statute in 2021 that increased the damages caps available to Plaintiffs. Again, if you believe that you or a loved one has been the victim of medical malpractice, please contact us today to set up a free consultation.