It is often said among proponents of medical malpractice reform that a jury comprised of ordinary citizens cannot evaluate whether a doctor or hospital acted negligently because medical issues are too complex for the average person who lacks the experience to weigh a doctor’s actions. According to these advocates, jurors too often reach their decision not on the medical evidence, but on the basis of sympathy for the medical condition of the plaintiff. Therefore, tort reformers suggest that caps be placed on the damages awarded to an injured patient, and that special tribunals, not ordinary citizens, sit as jurors in medical malpractice cases. 

Gurnee, Illinois family was recently awarded $29.1 million verdict in a medical malpractice lawsuit brought against the federal government. Does this verdict prove the point of medical malpractice reform? Were the jurors once again duped into hapless sympathy by hearing the case of Christian Arroyo, a six-year-old boy who suffered brain damage at birth and is now a quadriplegic? How could it be possible that one case could be worth so much money?

Well the first thing to understand is that the Arroyo case was not decided by a juror, but by a Federal judge, Amy St. Eve. Jury sympathy played no role in this award. The next thing to understand is that the Federal government has unlimited resources with which to defend itself, so this was not a case where one side had an unfair money advantage in presenting evidence. The next thing to understand for those that think that the family “hit the lotto” and are now living the high life, is that all of the money is for the benefit of Christian, who requires ‘round-the-clock care. That means nursing care, doctor visits, braces, wheelchairs, medication, breathing machines, disability accommodations to the home, etc. Not just now, but for the rest of Christian’s life. As well as provisions for Christian once his parents die.

Not all of the money was awarded to provide for Christian’s medical needs. A portion was also awarded for his loss of a normal life (sometimes called disability), and pain and suffering. Most six-year-olds are involved running around, learning how to ride bicycles, playing games or sports with their friends, attending school. Not Christian. Most 16-year-olds look forward to driving a car. Not Christian. Most people by the age of four can take care of their bodily needs. Not Christian. Throughout his life cycle, Christian will lead a different life, a life filled with dependency.

Catastrophic injuries that result from another’s negligence result in catastrophic financial awards. If you think that $29.1 million is a windfall for Christian, ask yourself one simple question: would you trade places with him?