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Supreme Court Rules for Fee Caps on Medical Malpractice Legal Fees

November 19, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ State officials trying to deal with burgeoning medical malpractice claims by placing a lid on how much lawyers can collect in such suits are receiving encouragement from the Supreme Court.

By a 7-2 vote Monday, the court rejected an invitation to overturn a 1975 California law that limits the fees winning lawyers can receive in malpractice cases. The justices said a challenge to the law by attorneys who claimed it infringed on free speech did not present ″a substantial federal question.″

Such rulings do not establish nationwide precedents created by the court’s formal written opinions. But the action leaves states free to enact laws similar to California’s.

Monday’s decision follows up the court’s action Oct. 15 allowing California to place a $250,000 limit on the amount a medical malpractice victim can win in court for non-economic losses such as pain and suffering.

The lawyers who attacked the California statute on attorneys fees said it restricts free speech by barring people who sue for medical malpractice from spending as they wish for constitutionally protected advocacy.

Justices William J. Brennan and Byron R. White dissented Monday, voting to hear arguments in the case.

Both California laws were passed by the state Legislature in response to the crisis of soaring medical malpractice insurance costs, which began in 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 awarded 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.

The controversy has its roots in a lawsuit filed by Frank and Yvonne Roa against 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, lawyers may receive part of the money awarded on behalf of a child only if a court approves. The Roas thus asked permission to pay their lawyer 25 percent of the sum awarded their son - about $122,800.

A state trial judge ordered the lawyer fee not exceed $90,800, in accordance with the schedule of fees in the state law.

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

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 eligible 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 while the court wrestles with a constitutional challenge to the plan.

-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.

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