Does $11.5 million seem an excessive jury award for an improperly managed toe injury? Maybe for most of us, but I would still be able to practice law even if some tortfeasor shot one of my toes off during a robbery. But what if you were a star professional athlete and lost your career due to medical malpractice? Unfortunately, it probably doesn’t matter, because I have a feeling O. J. McDuffie, a former wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins, is about to become a poster child for the so-called tort reform movement.
I’m just a casual football fan (though I never turn down an invitation to a Superbowl party and I’ve even hosted a couple of them) so I hadn’t heard of McDuffie until I read about his lawsuit. He had an outstanding college career at Penn State and then became a frequent target of Dan Marino, even leading the NFL one season for total pass receptions. And, unlike the other O. J., this one sounds like an all-around good guy who devotes a lot of his time to charitable causes.
McDuffie injured a toe during the 1999 season and then only played two of six regular season games and both post season games. An MRI showed tendon injuries in the toe, and McDuffie claimed the team physician ordered him to play through the injury. McDuffie suited up for nine games in 2000, but never played in 2001 and was cut before the 2002 season. He had three years left on his contract.
According to the news account, McDuffie claimed that his career was shortened because of the mishandling of the injury by the team physician. The jury believed he proved his case and awarded $10 million for lost wages and $1.5 million for “anguish.” McDuffie apparently settled with other defendants before trial. Ordinarily the judge will reduce the jury award by the amount of the other settlements–no double recoveries allowed–but I don’t know what the judge did here.
So, was this verdict jackpot justice? It doesn’t sound like it to me. A star player like McDuffie probably made several million dollars every year. The jury may have had to guess how many more seasons McDuffie would last in the rough and tumble of pro football, but it knew that the Dolphins certainly had to pay him for another three years regardless. By the way, under ordinary circumstances, the Dolphins probably did pay him. The doctor does not get off the hook just because the patient he injured was compensated for his lost wages by his employer. For us mortals who make less money than pro athletes, that means if you lost two weeks of work after an automobile wreck, you still are entitled to two weeks of wages from the tortfeasor even if your boss paid you two weeks of sick leave. The principle that a tortfeasor should not profit from third party payments also applies to health insurance benefits.
What about the mental anguish award? Think about it. Your career is over. Even if you can get another job that pays as much, it’s not the job you really want or what you planned to do. It is not unusual for a jury to put a large price tag on this kind of damage, if the injured party was a high earner, as McDuffie certainly was. Relatively speaking, the mental anguish award was only 15% of the underlying award.
In the end, however, some people will see in this trial result another example of why the jury system should be changed. High cost of health care and all that mumbo jumbo. Before you sneer at McDuffie or his lawyers, however, ask yourself how much money you would take to hang up your spikes.