Siebert v. Okun, NO. S-1-SC-37231

Docket NºNO. S-1-SC-37231
Citation485 P.3d 1265
Case DateMarch 15, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico

485 P.3d 1265

Susan L. SIEBERT, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Rebecca C. OKUN, M.D., and Women's Specialists of New Mexico, Ltd., Defendants-Appellants.

NO. S-1-SC-37231

Supreme Court of New Mexico.

Filing Date: March 15, 2021


Hinkle Shanor, LLP, William P. Slattery, Dana Simmons Hardy, Santa Fe, NM, Dickinson Wright, PLLC, Bennett Evan Cooper, Phoenix, AZ, Lorenz Law, Alice Tomlinson Lorenz, Albuquerque, NM, for Appellants

Curtis & Co., Lisa Curtis, Laura R. Callanan, Albuquerque, NM, The Law Office of Amalia S. Lucero, LLC, Amalia J. Skogen Lucero, Placitas, NM, for Appellee

John W. Anderson, Attorney at Law P.C., John William Anderson, Albuquerque, NM, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, LLP, Mark A. Behrens, Cary Silverman, Washington, D.C., for Amici Curiae New Mexico Medical Society and American Medical Association

Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, P.A., Edward R. Ricco, Albuquerque, NM, for Amicus Curiae New Mexico Hospital Association

University of New Mexico School of Law, Michael B. Browde, David J. Stout, Albuquerque, NM, American Association for Justice, Elsie Sanguinetti, President, Jeffrey White, Senior Associate General Counsel, Washington, DC, for Amici Curiae New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association and American Association for Justice

VIGIL, Justice.

{1} This case requires us to consider whether the cap on all damages other than medical care and punitive damages under the Medical Malpractice Act (MMA), NMSA 1978, §§ 41-5-1 to -29 (1976, as amended through 2015), violates the right to trial by jury guaranteed by Article II, Section 12 of the New Mexico Constitution. Plaintiff Susan L. Siebert successfully sued her doctor, Rebecca C. Okun, M.D., and Women's Specialists of New Mexico, Ltd. (WSNM) for medical malpractice under the MMA. Following the return of the jury's verdict, Defendants Dr. Okun and WSNM moved to reduce the jury award of $2,600,000 to conform with the $600,000 cap on all nonmedical and nonpunitive damages in MMA actions. See NMSA 1978, § 41-5-6(A) (1992).

{2} The district court denied Defendants’ motion, concluding that the MMA nonmedical, nonpunitive damages cap infringed the state constitutional right to a trial by jury. In doing so, the district court ruled in direct opposition to the Court of Appeals’ holding in Salopek v. Friedman , 2013-NMCA-087, ¶ 58, 308 P.3d 139. In addition, the district court suggested without deciding that the cap might implicate the equal protection, substantive due process, and separation of powers provisions of the New Mexico Constitution. N.M. Const. art. II, § 18 ; N.M. Const. art. III, § 1.

{3} We review this case upon acceptance of certification from the Court of Appeals.

485 P.3d 1267

Siebert v. Okun , A-1-CA-36067, Order of Certification to the New Mexico Supreme Court (Sept. 4, 2018); Siebert v. Okun , S-1-SC-37231, Order (Sept. 24, 2018). As we explain herein, we hold that the MMA nonmedical, nonpunitive damages cap does not violate Article II, Section 12, and we reverse the district court's denial of Defendants’ motion to conform the judgment in accordance with the statutory cap. See § 41-5-6(A).

I. BACKGROUND

{4} Plaintiff suffered injuries due to perforations in her uterus and intestine after a hysteroscopy performed by Dr. Okun, an employee of WSNM. Subsequently, Plaintiff brought suit against Defendants. Because Defendants were "qualified" health care providers as defined by the MMA, NMSA 1978, § 41-5-5(A) (1992), the provisions of the MMA applied to Plaintiff's suit for medical malpractice.

{5} The MMA statutory scheme is a quid pro quo, whereby qualified health care providers are afforded certain legal protections only if they take financial action in anticipation of medical negligence lawsuits. Specifically, a qualified health care provider under the MMA must pay an annual surcharge into the statutorily-created patient's compensation fund and either provide proof of professional liability insurance of at least $200,000 per occurrence or, for an individual health care provider, have a continuous deposit of $600,000 with the state superintendent of insurance. NMSA 1978, §§ 41-5-3(A) (1977), -5(A), -25 (1997). In exchange for these financial contributions and assurances, the MMA provides qualified health care providers with various benefits. See generally Baker v. Hedstrom , 2013-NMSC-043, ¶ 18, 309 P.3d 1047 (reviewing the benefits provided by the MMA to qualified health care providers). Among those benefits, the MMA caps nonmedical, nonpunitive damages awards at $600,000 and limits the qualified health care provider's personal liability to $200,000. Section 41-5-6 ; NMSA 1978, § 41-5-7(E) (1992). Any remaining amount of the judgment exceeding the personal liability cap is paid out of the patient's compensation fund. Sections 41-5-7(E), -25(G). Most pertinent to this case is the cap on an award of nonmedical, nonpunitive damages under Section 41-5-6(A).

{6} Section 41-5-6(A) provides that, "[e]xcept for punitive damages and medical care and related benefits, the aggregate dollar amount recoverable by all persons for or arising from any injury or death to a patient as a result of malpractice shall not exceed six hundred thousand dollars ($600,000) per occurrence." The amount recoverable for a malpractice claim under the MMA does not include awards for future medical expenses, but if the jury finds that a successful plaintiff is in need of future medical care, that plaintiff may receive payment for reasonable future medical expenses as they are incurred. Sections 41-5-6(C), -7(A)-(B), -(D). Awards for those future medical expenses are not capped. Section 41-5-7(C). In other words, the jury in an MMA action determines whether a plaintiff is entitled to future damages but does not award a specific amount following the trial. The amount awarded for future medical care is established in subsequent evidentiary hearings. Section 41-5-7.

{7} The jury in this case awarded Plaintiff $2,600,000 in total damages. The damages award was not disaggregated into various categories of damages. This is because the district court failed to give the required special interrogatory asking the jury to state the amount of damages it awarded for past medical care and benefits. UJI 13-1126 NMRA. In addition, the jury was incorrectly instructed to award damages for Plaintiff's future medical care in violation of Section 41-5-7. The jury was not given the required special interrogatory asking if Plaintiff was in need of future medical care, UJI 13-1125 NMRA. For these reasons, we are not certain how much of the jury's verdict was intended to compensate for past medical care and nonmedical injuries, and we do not know whether any amount of the jury's award was intended to compensate for future medical care. However, the jury was instructed that Plaintiff's medical expenses totaled $935,916.15. We therefore accept that this amount of the jury's verdict was intended to compensate Plaintiff for her existing medical expenses by the time of the trial. The jury was also instructed that it could award compensation

485 P.3d 1268

for various nonmedical injuries, such as pain and suffering, loss of household services, and loss of enjoyment of life, among other injuries. The jury was not instructed on punitive damages.

{8} The district court entered judgment against Defendants for the total amount of the jury's verdict. Defendants subsequently moved to amend the judgment to conform to the damages cap of Section 41-5-6(A). Defendants argued that the total award should be reduced to $1,535,916.15, representing the stipulated amount of Plaintiff's existing medical expenses ($935,916.15) plus $600,000 for Plaintiff's capped nonmedical damages. In response, Plaintiff argued that the MMA nonmedical, nonpunitive damages cap was unconstitutional, specifically violating the right to a jury trial as guaranteed by Article II, Section 12, the separation of powers provision of Article III, Section 1, and the equal protection and substantive due process clauses of Article II, Section 18.

{9} After an evidentiary hearing on the constitutional issues, the district court issued its memorandum opinion and order, which concluded that Article II, Section 12 was "clearly implicated and dispositive" and that the MMA nonmedical, nonpunitive damages cap violated Plaintiff's right to a jury trial. The district court stated that the constitutional separation of powers, equal protection, and due process provisions might also be implicated but declined to decide those issues.

{10} Defendants appealed to the Court of Appeals. Because the Court of Appeals had already addressed the issues presented by this case in Salopek , 2013-NMCA-087, 308 P.3d 139, it certified the case to this Court pursuant to NMSA 1978, Section 34-5-14(C) (1972), and Rule 12-606 NMRA. Siebert , A-1-CA-36067, Order (Sept. 4, 2018).

II. DISCUSSION

{11} In its certification order, the Court of Appeals identified the following significant questions of law: (1) whether the district court erred by concluding that the MMA nonmedical, nonpunitive damages cap violates the right to a trial by jury; (2) whether the district court erred in suggesting that the MMA nonmedical, nonpunitive damages cap violates the separation of powers provision; and (3) whether the district court erred in...

To continue reading

Request your trial
6 practice notes
  • Jordan v. Jenkins, No. 19-0890
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • June 15, 2021
    ...it should be permissible for the legislature to impose a limitation upon the amount of recovery as well."); see also Siebert v. Okun , 485 P.3d 1265, 1277 n.3 (N.M. 2021) (noting 24 of 30 states enacting damages caps found "statutory limit on recovery is a matter of law within the purview o......
  • Leger v. Leger, S-1-SC-37450
    • United States
    • New Mexico Supreme Court of New Mexico
    • December 2, 2021
    ...aspects of the traditional, common law, medical negligence cause of action. See generally Siebert v. Okun , 2021-NMSC-016, ¶¶ 18-22, 485 P.3d 1265 (explaining the procedural differences between claims of medical negligence and claims of medical malpractice under the MMA). For example, as a ......
  • Leger v. Leger, S-1-SC-37450
    • United States
    • New Mexico Supreme Court of New Mexico
    • December 2, 2021
    ...aspects of the traditional, common law, medical negligence cause of action. See generally Siebert v. Okun, 2021-NMSC-016, ¶¶ 18-22, 485 P.3d 1265 (explaining the procedural differences between claims of medical negligence and claims of medical malpractice under the MMA). For example, as a b......
  • Leger v. Leger, S-1-SC-37450
    • United States
    • New Mexico Supreme Court of New Mexico
    • December 2, 2021
    ...aspects of the traditional, common law, medical negligence cause of action. See generally Siebert v. Okun, 2021-NMSC-016, ¶¶ 18-22, 485 P.3d 1265 (explaining the procedural differences between claims of medical negligence and claims of medical malpractice under the MMA). For example, as a b......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
6 cases
  • Jordan v. Jenkins, No. 19-0890
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • June 15, 2021
    ...it should be permissible for the legislature to impose a limitation upon the amount of recovery as well."); see also Siebert v. Okun , 485 P.3d 1265, 1277 n.3 (N.M. 2021) (noting 24 of 30 states enacting damages caps found "statutory limit on recovery is a matter of law within the purview o......
  • Leger v. Leger, S-1-SC-37450
    • United States
    • New Mexico Supreme Court of New Mexico
    • December 2, 2021
    ...aspects of the traditional, common law, medical negligence cause of action. See generally Siebert v. Okun , 2021-NMSC-016, ¶¶ 18-22, 485 P.3d 1265 (explaining the procedural differences between claims of medical negligence and claims of medical malpractice under the MMA). For example, as a ......
  • Leger v. Leger, S-1-SC-37450
    • United States
    • New Mexico Supreme Court of New Mexico
    • December 2, 2021
    ...aspects of the traditional, common law, medical negligence cause of action. See generally Siebert v. Okun, 2021-NMSC-016, ¶¶ 18-22, 485 P.3d 1265 (explaining the procedural differences between claims of medical negligence and claims of medical malpractice under the MMA). For example, as a b......
  • Leger v. Leger, S-1-SC-37450
    • United States
    • New Mexico Supreme Court of New Mexico
    • December 2, 2021
    ...aspects of the traditional, common law, medical negligence cause of action. See generally Siebert v. Okun, 2021-NMSC-016, ¶¶ 18-22, 485 P.3d 1265 (explaining the procedural differences between claims of medical negligence and claims of medical malpractice under the MMA). For example, as a b......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT