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Supreme Court to Hear Med Mal Settlement Case

Yesterday we discussed how the U.S Supreme Court has begun determining which cases it will hear in the upcoming term. Most lawyers, students, advocates, scholars, and others closely follow these actions, because of the potential for these cases-or the rulings issued-to have consequences on many future cases and legal arguments.

There remains some confusion about the role of the U.S. Supreme Court. Of course, most understand the Court is the highest in the federal system-whatever rules it decides are applicable to every federal court in the country. But, the U.S. Supreme Court is not necessarily the final word on state issues. Sometimes state Supreme Courts issues rulings contrary to determinations by the U.S. Supreme Court, and, in certain cases, those state rulings are binding. It is a subtle and complex distinction. But, no matter what the case, what the U.S. Supreme Court decides on any given issue is almost always critically important. When they decide things, lawyers listen.

Med Mal Settlement Case
On top of the military medical malpractice battery case we mentioned yesterday, the Court has also agreed to hear a North Carolina case regarding medical malpractice settlements and state reimbursements. The News Tribune discussed the situation earlier this week.

According to the report, at issue in the case is a state law that allows state officials to claim a portion of settlement funds following a med mal settlement. This is usually done by the public body issuing a lien on the settlement funds, often taking large chunks of the award that a judge or jury provided to a family following malpractice. In the particular case at issue a family secured at $2.8 million settlement for 2006 malpractice involving their daughter. However, the state sought to take about 1/3 of the entire judgment away.

The basic idea behind the law is that the state is entitled to reimbursement for funds that it paid through public programs (like Medicaid) for the plaintiff’s medical care. However, many have questioned the scope of the public taking-often securing millions of dollars from families.

The medical malpractice lawyers who is leading the appeal explained that the law is a “one-size-fits all policy. It’s too much in some circumstances.”

The legal argument against the law is that it conflicts with federal law in allowing the state to take funds beyond medical costs. For example, in this case the family is arguing that the state is taking funds which were actually awarded to cover other damages-like pain and suffering. A federal appellate court sided with the family in this case, holding that the state could not issue a lien on the settlement unrelated to medical costs. However, in a separate case on the issue the North Carolina Supreme Court found contrary, upholding the state law.

While there is a state court and federal court split on this issue, observers note that because the federal challenge involves a federal statute, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision will ultimately carry the day, regardless of what the state high court previously ruled.

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