California’s current medical malpractice law faces a new challenge from a San Francisco family this month. The law is controversial for a number of reasons, and has caused conflict between medical providers and patients’ rights advocates.

1975’s Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act historically limited the amount that patients could receive as repayment for medical malpractice results. Naturally such a law has been under constant criticism because in the world of medical malpractice there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all result. Every case is different, and imposing an automatic limit to payments does not reflect the realities and complexities of malpractice cases.

The law is solidly on the side of medical care providers — it was intended to protect them from the danger of escalating lawsuits and the attendant rises in insurance and healthcare costs that would follow from such escalation. The problem is that this leaves patients who may have suffered damages that require costs far in excess of the “cap” without recourse.

The current case involves the Gavello family. 63 year old Gary Gavello was left in the care of a nurse and nursing assistant by his anesthesiologist after the doctor ordered his anesthesia. As a result of the neglect of proper care, Gavello passed away in the hospital. The jury set the Gavello family’s award to $2.9 million in damages and $1 million in emotional distress. However, because of the way the law works and because of an arbitration agreement the Gavello family had prior to the surgery, the anesthesiologist’s penalty was reduced to only $50,000.

The case illustrates how the law twists the realities of the case and severely hampers plaintiffs in their pursuit of justice for medical malpractice. Court costs for medical malpractice cases can be substantial, and add to the existing burden from the medical bills — limits such as those imposed by the Reform Act are clearly not in the patients’ best interests.