Synapse: May 8, 1975

Graduate Division

From 40 Years Ago:
Vol. 19, No. 29, May 8, 1975:

In California, a medical malpractice lawsuit cannot lead to an award of more than $250,000 in non-economic damages--i.e. for pain and suffering--one of the lowest such caps of any state. Indeed, many states have no cap at all.

Four decades ago, the Synapse front page captured the discontent that would lead to this cap, which was just one of several measures in the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975. “Legislature Stymied: Malpractice Crisis Threatens Hospital Jobs,” declared the headline of an article by Jacquelyn Brown. An accompanying article by Peter Bissell was headlined “Bay Area Doctor Protests Soaring Malpractice Rates.”

Earlier in 1975, the prominent malpractice insurance provider Argonaut Insurance Company, after first declaring it would stop offering coverage, ultimately simply greatly increased its premiums, as much as quadrupling them in some cases. Although this did not affect doctors at Kaiser or at public institutions, including UCSF, most Bay Area private hospitals were affected. In response to these rate increases, which took effect on May 1, many anesthesiologists went on strike, leading to the postponement of elective surgeries as well as layoffs of many other hospital employees, such as nurses and kitchen workers (due to decreased demand for their services since there were fewer patients).

The articles describe how many physicians were pushing for a legislative solution, with the hope that by restricting medical malpractice payouts they would also decrease the insurance premiums. “The San Francisco Medical Society has demanded the passage of three bills now pending in the legislature to alleviate the present situation. These bills would limit attorney’s fees in malpractice cases, impose a three-year statute of limitations. . . and necessitate a view of the suing patient’s collateral sources of income”

In May, however, such a legislative cure seemed unlikely. Reacting to the absence of legislative action, hospital worker union leader Robert Cooper sent “a strongly worded telegram to Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr.” urging action, reported Brown. For those keeping track at home, this Edmund G. Brown, Jr., is none other than our current governor, Jerry Brown. And for the California political junkies out there, I’ll also note that the Synapse article includes a quote from “Brown’s aide, Gray Davis”. This strike and other sources of pressure helped move things forward, though, and several months later the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act mentioned above, most of which is still currently in effect, was passed.