By Angela Hart, POLITICO PRO

December 16, 2019

SACRAMENTO — Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer on Monday threw her support behind a November ballot initiative to increase a decades-old cap on compensation in California medical negligence cases.

Boxer, speaking at a press conference launching a signature-gathering effort, said she hopes to spend a "tremendous amount of time" on the campaign. In a brief interview with POLITICO, the former Democratic senator said she's long supported increasing the compensation cap, set in California at $250,000 for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, disability and disfigurement.

The proposal would index the legal payout cap for inflation — initially raising it to $1.2 million while also allowing juries to award more. Boxer argued that providers would be more responsive to patients and improve care if they are afraid of an expensive lawsuit.

"You're going to have to pay hard if you destroy a life," she said.

Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and chairwoman of California Democratic Party's women's caucus, also vowed to work on the campaign, casting it as an women's issue.

"When you talk about the people who are making health care decisions for their families and the people who are taking time off ... it largely falls on women," Pelosi said. "And so these caps, while they certainly fall on dads and sons, they fall disproportionately on moms, on women."

Opponents of changing the 1975 Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, including the California Medical Association, California Hospital Association and medical malpractice insurance industry, have stayed mostly silent so far. In general, they argue that raising the payout limit would drive health care costs even higher.

The groups are part of Californians Allied for Patient Protection, a coalition that also argues the initiative would benefit "wealthy trial attorneys."

"Their solution would dramatically spike health care costs for everyone, reduce access in communities that need it the most ... and cost state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars," said Lisa Maas, executive director of the coalition.

Trial lawyer Nick Rowley, leading the effort with Consumer Watchdog, said backers are prepared to spend $40 million — including $10 million of his own money. Proponents said they expect opponents would spend far more.

"I'm not doing it for they money. I'm not doing it to make a single attorney fee," Rowley said. "I've had to look hundreds of people in the eye and tell them that ... in the state of California, civil justice is only worth $250,000."

Consumer Watchdog's Jamie Court didn't rule out a legislative deal to keep the initiative off the ballot. He and other proponents were meeting Monday with Gov. Gavin Newsom's legislative secretary, Anthony Williams.

Rowley, however, was skeptical that a deal with Newsom and the Legislature would adequately compensate victims and their families for medical negligence. "Raising the cap for inflation is not enough," Rowley said, noting that he wants to give juries the power to determine non-economic financial compensation.