My wife and I visited Redondo Beach, California not long ago. It is only a short drive from Los Angeles, has relatively little violent crime and has those ethereal sunset views California beaches are famous for. Redondo Beach defines the California-beach lifestyle of year-round surfing and beach volleyball.
Elizabeth Nicks is a 15-year-old Redondo Beach resident who tried her hand at cheerleading. Three years ago, while performing with Redondo Beach Youth Football & Cheer, she toppled from the top of a pyramid-like cheerleading formation and injured her head. Rushed to nearby Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, she was promptly diagnosed with a small subdural hematoma and admitted for observation.
Although a dangerous condition with potentially high mortality and morbidity, there is nothing particularly controversial about the management of an acute subdural hematoma. Close observation and a judgment call on timing surgical intervention often saves the day. The neurosurgeon determines the size and rate of growth of the hematoma and then operates as needed. With modern CT scans, which take less than a minute to perform, the prognosis today is enormously improved from when I saw my first case as a medical student in the ’60’s.
Unfortunately for Elizabeth, her medical care was substandard. Despite a five-day hospitalization in which she showed clinical signs of mild deterioration, she was discharged without a follow up CT scan. The next morning she was unresponsive and was taken back to the hospital. She suffered massive brain damage, retardation and paralysis and will require medical attention for the rest of her life.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors finalized a settlement this week and admitted no liability. The family will receive a lump payment of $2.45 million, along with monthly payments totaling $3.05 million from annuity funds for the next 40 years to pay for Elizabeth’s medical treatment. Her parents, Gerry and Laddie Nicks, will also receive $250,000 in “noneconomic damages” – the most allowed under California law for medical malpractice claims. Noneconomic damages refer to compensation for pain and suffering.
Frankly, LA County got off cheap. My guess is the bulk of the lump sum will go to the lawyers and the annuity will be left for Elizabeth’s future care. So, yes, the girl’s medical care will be paid for, but what kind of life will she have? Obviously, no one can bring back her neurologic function, but I’m sure her and her parents’ lives could have been made easier. Even with the real estate bust, the median price of homes for sale in Redondo Beach is $700,000, which means that the family will probably grapple with keeping a roof over its head for years to come.
Caps on so-called noneconomic damages go against America’s traditional jury system. Georgia’s Supreme Court recently struck down as unconstitutional a similar damage cap in a unanimous decision. Since the 18th century, Georgia’s constitution has guaranteed its citizens a jury trial under the common law. The common law requires that the jury assess damages so that they can be adjusted on a case-by-case basis and not legislated according to changing whims of politicians. At the moment, the winds in Georgia are blowing in the direction of corporatism and the legislature is happy to please its friends in the Chamber of Commerce. After five years of a bad law passed by the Georgia legislature, the Supreme Court assured that had this case been decided in Georgia this week, the settlement would probably have been a lot higher.
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