Georgia Supreme Court Weights Constitutionality of 2005 Medical Malpractice Cap Law

The case of a 75-year-old Marietta, Georgia, woman who was permanently disfigured after complications from facial surgery has landed in the Georgia Supreme Court, which on Tuesday heard arguments for the first time on the constitutionality of the state’s caps on jury awards in medical malpractice cases.

Betty Nestlehutt didn’t like the bags under her eyes or the lines around her mouth. So she went to an Atlanta plastic surgeon for a facelift. Weeks after surgery, her skin began to die because the medical procedures cut off the flow of blood to her face. Gaping wounds opened from her temples to her chin. After extended treatment, the real estate agent was left permanently disfigured.

…After a trial, a Fulton County jury awarded Nestlehutt $115,000 for past and future medical expenses and $1.15 million in noneconomic damages, including $900,000 for her pain and suffering. The judgment was against Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery, which is owned by Harvey “Chip” Cole, who performed Nestlehutt’s procedures.

Georgia’s tort reform law, championed by the heath care and insurance industries, caps noneconomic damage awards at $350,000. For this reason, the award should be reduced to $465,000 — $115,000 for medical expenses and the $350,000 cap, Atlanta Oculoplastic’s lawyers argued after the verdict.

But Fulton State Court Judge Diane Bessen declared the cap unconstitutional. It violates the state Constitution’s guarantee to a trial by jury, separation of powers and equal protection, she said in a Feb. 9 order. She acknowledged her decision was “charged with significant ramifications.”

We’ll stay tuned for this decision.

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