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Justices Uphold Law Limiting Lawyers’ Cut of Malpractice Fees

November 18, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court, having earlier allowed states to limit how much money people may win in medical malpractice suits, ruled Monday that caps also may be placed on the fees that winning lawyers collect in such cases.

By a 7-2 vote, the court let stand a 1975 California law that imposes such lawyer-fee limits.

The law was challenged as an infringement of free-speech rights on grounds it bars people who sue for medical malpractice from spending as they wish for constitutionally protected advocacy.

On Oct. 15, the Supreme Court allowed California to impose a $250,000 limit on the amount a victim of medical malpractice may recover for non-economic losses.

The court, as it had in the earlier case, ruled Monday that the appeal did not present ″a substantial federal question.′

Justices William J. Brennan and Byron R. White dissented.

Both California laws were passed as by the state Legislature in response to the medical malpractice insurance crisis of the 1970s.

The law acted on Monday states that a lawyer’s contingency-fee payment may not exceed certain percentages.

It allows a 40 percent fee for the first $50,000 recovered by a plaintiff; one-third of the next $50,000; 25 percent of the next $100,000; and 10 percent of any additional amount over $200,000.

Frank and Yvonne Roa sued the Lodi Medical Group and Dr. Gordon B. Roget in San Joaquin County over alleged medical malpractice in treatment and care during the birth of their son, Frank Joseph Roa.

The suit was settled before trial when the defendants agreed to pay $495,000 to the child and $5,000 to the parents.

Under California law, lawyer fees may be spent from a lawsuit recovery obtained in settlement of a child’s claim only if a court approves. The Roas thus asked permission to pay their lawyer 25 percent of their son’s recovery - about $122,800.

The couple had contracted with the lawyer to pay that amount, but the state trial judge invoked the state law in ordering that the lawyer fee not exceed $90,800.

The California Supreme Court upheld the law by a 4-3 vote.

The state court said the law was rationally aimed at preserving a larger share of recovered malpractice awards for those actually injured - and at reducing medical malpractice insurance costs.

Lawyers for the Roas said the California law suffers from ″a lack of due regard for the reality that the activity regulated is intertwined with protected speech.″

They said a person’s decision on how much money to spend should be made ″without meddling by even a well-meaning government.″

In other matters Monday, the court:

-Ruled unanimously against a convicted Arkansas murderer who challenged his guilty plea after learning he was misinformed by his lawyer as to when he would be eligile for parole.

-Ruled in a case from Philadelphia that federal judges generally may not force the federal government to pay for the transfer of state prison inmates to federal court proceedings.

-Allowed Indiana’s current redistricting plan to be used for the state’s 1986 legislative elections, presumably unless a constitutional challenge now pending before the justices succeeds.

-Agreed to decide in a Texas case the validity of federal laws that cut food stamp costs by limiting eligibility for family members who live together but may maintain separate households under the same roof.

-Said it will consider throwing out a lawsuit by a Chippewa Indian woman who claims the federal government owes her for 20 acres of Minnesota land taken 31 years ago.

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