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Court Rejects Louisiana|Malpractice Damages Cap

(CN) - Louisiana's limit on medical malpractice awards is unconstitutional, a state appeals court ruled.

Joe and Helena Oliver sought relief from the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act, which shrank the damage award they received from $6.2 million to $500,000. The Olivers' daughter, Taylor, developed severe injuries after she was treated by a nurse who was practicing with only a high school degree.

Susan Duhon, a registered nurse practitioner and sole owner of the Magnolia Clinic, treated Taylor for vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.

Taylor visited the clinic 32 times in the first year of her life, and Duhon prescribed more than 30 medications to her. Duhon had a statutory duty to consult a physician, but Taylor never saw a doctor during any of her visits.

When Taylor was 14 months old, another hospital diagnosed her with neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer. One of the signs is severe bruising around the eyes, which Taylor had presented with at the Magnolia Clinic when she was 6 months old.

If neuroblastoma is diagnosed within the first year of life, the child has a 90 percent chance of an event-free recovery. Because of the delayed diagnosis, the quality of Taylor's life has been severely diminished.

Though Taylor survived the cancer, the tumor caused her head to become misshapen. Her eyes are abnormally large, and she is legally blind.

"Currently, to qualify as a nurse practitioner, a nurse is required to obtain a baccalaureate of science and a masters of science in nursing," the ruling states. "Although Ms. Duhon did not obtain any degree in nursing from an institution of higher learning, she was allowed to escape the more rigorous requirements enacted by statute with only a high school degree, under the 'grandfathered' exception."

The Olivers won their medical malpractice lawsuit, but their $6.2 million award shrank to less than one-twelfth of its original size under the state law.

The trial court ruled in the clinic's favor, but the Lake Charles-based appeals court agreed with the Olivers that the cap on malpractice damages is unconstitutional.

"The state offered no evidence in this refute the fact that the cap discriminates against Taylor and her parents by limiting their general damage recovery to a single $500,000 payment, while allowing other less severely injured victims to fully recover their general damage awards," Judge Sylvia Cooks wrote in the court's lead opinion.

Two other judges on the court wrote concurring opinions, and Judge Shannon Gremillion dissented.

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