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Birth Injuries: Not Just a Hot Cup of Coffee

When people generally think of frivolous lawsuits, their first reference is to a hot cup of coffee at McDonalds.  Although the injured woman sustained severe third-degree burns, that case about a hot cup of coffee has been used as a vehicle to try and limit legitimate claims of neglect.  There is a recent example of a birth injury case that illustrates just how distorted our national conversation has become on lawsuits.

Within this past year, a Chicago family settled a birth injury case for the staggering sum of fifty three million dollars ($53,000,000) after twelve years of litigation.  In this Chicago lawsuit, medical staff at the University of Chicago ignored the child’s mother for hours despite the fact that her child was in severe fetal distress, which meant she needed an emergency c-section.  As a result of the staff’s failure, the child was born with severe brain damage.  Even twelve years later, the child is unable to walk or speak and will suffer from neurological injuries for the rest of his life.  The interesting question is what would have happened had this incident occurred in Tennessee?

In Tennessee, the legislature has tried to turn birth injury cases essentially into a “hot cup of coffee.” In Tennessee, the law has been changed to limit non-economic damages to seven hundred fifty thousand dollars ($750,000), except in certain rare circumstances.  This limits the amount a person is entitled to recover for their pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and mental anguish in personal injury and medical malpractice cases.  The law does not affect how much a person can recover for their economic losses.  These economic losses would include, but are not limited to, past lost earning capacity, past medical bills, future medical bills, or future lost earning capacity.  This limitation applies to someone spilling hot coffee on themselves or a woman in desperate need of a c-section and who ends up with a child with severe brain damage.

The legislative history provides no explanation why a birth injury should be limited.  The push behind this limitation all started because someone took offense that a woman dropped a cup of hot coffee in her lap.  Experienced attorneys can explain the economic harms and losses as well as provide the required expert testimony that can illustrate just how devastating a birth injury is to the child as well as to the family.  However, certain lawmakers have tried their best to tie a legitimate claim, such as a birth injury, to the perception of lawsuits and cups of hot coffee.

Some issues require extensive legal analysis and some issues can be explained with common sense.  Why birth injuries cases are not cups of hot coffee is an issue that can be explained with both common sense and legal analysis.  Tennessee citizens have expressed their clear preference that put a premium on children in the womb.   The Tennessee legislature, on the other hand, does not.  Instead, they have taken away the Tennessee voters’ rights to decide a birth injury case.  You do not need to be a lawyer to see these issues.

Legally, this limitation on damages continues to be litigated. Recently, a Chattanooga judge ruled that this cap on damages was unconstitutional because it deprived Tennessee citizens of their constitutional right to a trial by jury.  The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed that court’s ruling, stating that the trial court’s decision came too early in the litigation process.  In other words, the Tennessee Supreme Court vacated the trial court’s decision on procedural grounds, but left open the issue as to whether lawsuits such as a birth injury case should be limited on constitutional grounds. It is expected that this issue will continue to be tried in state courts across Tennessee as well as the court of public opinion.

If you have been the victim of medical malpractice, an experienced Tennessee lawyer may be able to assist you. Call Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz at 1-800-LAW-4004 for a free consultation on your case. Our firm has represented injured victims and their loved ones for more than 25 years, and we are the largest personal injury law firm based in Tennessee.