Horton Decision Stirs Controversy over Damages Caps

Posted on behalf of Rizk Law on Oct 18, 2016 in Legal News

On May 5, 2016, the Oregon Supreme Court put the nail in the coffin of a personal injury case that has been brewing since 2011, when the parents of a Klamath Falls boy were awarded a mere $3 million in damages for multiple life-threatening surgeries their son endured at the hands of Oregon Health & Science University physicians. The case: Horton v. OHSU. The outcome: Oregon Supreme Court upholds $3 million cap on damages against the state.

The Story behind Horton

In Horton v. OHSUplaintiffs Steve and Lori Horton (now Lori Spiesschaert) sued OHSU and the physicians responsible for their son’s surgery for medical malpractice. The surgery, which took place in 2009, nearly took his life at just 8 months old. Speisschaert felt a lump on her infant son which led to the discovery of a malignant tumor on his liver. The boy was taken to OHSU to have the tumor removed. OHSU and the physicians both admitted to liability for what took place.

The two surgeons providing care accidentally snipped key blood vessels, leading to liver failure. It took up to 45 minutes for them to realize this. The boy was taken to OHSU two more times for surgeries that caused further harm. Two days after the final surgery, OHSU arranged for the family to fly in an air ambulance to a children’s hospital at Stanford University in California for life-saving treatment. The surgeons at the California hospital were successful in transplanting a piece of the mother’s liver to save his life. Over the course of three months, the child would undergo 4 more surgeries fighting for his life. Two years later, OHSU paid the $3 million that was the maximum allowed under the Oregon Tort Claims Act ORS 30.260, which caps judgments against public entities like OHSU and state employees.

Despite the $3 million, the family came up short on their Stanford medical bills, which amounted to $5 million. None of this was covered by insurance by the way; as as soon as the insurance companies discovered the medical bills were due to negligence they started demanding the family pay them back. The $3 million were divided between Stanford, paying back the insurance companies, lost wages, and several other expenses.

After a few months, the family sued OHSU and the surgeons responsible a second time. OHSU had never disputed that they were at fault for the harm they caused. With $30 million in insurance on the surgery; therefore, the jury was only responsible for issuing a judgment. Spiesschaert also suffered complications from donating her liver, and attempted to recover for that as well.

Hortons Sue for Damages

M.O. StevensOHSU Physicians Pavilion – Portland, OregonCC BY-SA 3.0

In 2013, a Multnomah County jury awarded the boy over $12 million in damages for negligence by OHSU and its physicians. It took over 2 weeks for the jury to calculate the sum; calculating that past and future medical expenses would exceed $6 million and awarding another $6 million for pain and suffering. Defendants asked the trial judge to impose the Oregon Tort Claim Act, limiting damages to $3 million. The trial court granted the request to the hospital, but not to the doctors. OHSU immediately appealed the decision and moved to reduce the verdict to the $3 million. Because of provisions in the Oregon Tort Claim Act it went directly to the Oregon Supreme Court which sided with OHSU and the state employees. While claiming its awareness that $3 million was not enough to cover the boy’s basic medical expenses, Justice Rives Kistler wrote that “we cannot say that $3 million tort claims limit on damages against state employees is insubstantial.”

How it is not insubstantial when it fails to cover just the basic medical expenses for personal injury and not a dollar for pain and suffering, nobody knows. Because the cap protects publicly-funded agencies, it seems that it is here to stay.

What does this mean for Oregonians?

This is a huge disgrace as that shows that any public entity is entitled to make a mistake that can seriously injure or even kill a human being, because to own up to it all they’ll have to pay is pennies on the dollar for the expenses. This sets a dangerous precedent for all Oregonians, particularly those who are seriously hurt and whose expenses balloon to the millions of dollars, meaning they truly need the multi-million dollar damages the jury would like to award. The family, now divided, are facing bankruptcy and the uncertainty of their child’s long-term well-being.

Oregonians need to know that this decision is wrong and can literally ruin people’s lives. The Horton’s case could happen to anyone. If you are facing the possibility of medical malpractice litigation in Portland, you’ve got a friend in RizkLaw. Call 503.245.5677 today for a free case evaluation.