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Supreme Court split on North Carolina medical malpractice issue

The U.S. Supreme Court has been unable to come to an easy conclusion regarding how much of a disabled North Carolina girl's medical malpractice award may be claimed by the state.

The 12-year-old girl at the center of the case was severely disabled after sustaining a birth injury when she was delivered via caesarian-section. The girl is mute, blind and deaf. Her family says she is largely unable to move, experiences seizures, suffers from cerebral palsy and regularly requires suctioning of her airway in order to ensure she can breathe. The family's attorney explained that the girl requires "a tremendous amount" of medical care.

The girl's family sued the doctor for $42 million in damages, though they eventually settled for $2.8 million. Estimating that they have spent over $1.9 million in Medicaid payments for the girl's care, North Carolina health officials claimed a third of the settlement fund, equating to $933,333.33. The family's attorney ruled that this amount was determined arbitrarily, "regardless of the true facts of the case."

North Carolina law allows the state to take up to one-third of a Medicaid patient's malpractice judgment, but the girl's family argues that this constitutes an excessively large share and that the state should hold individual hearings on a case-by-case basis to determine how much is fair. The justices of the nation's highest court were largely split on the issue.

While many of the justices were sympathetic toward the family, most seemed unsure on how to determine how much of a settlement a state can claim. The Supreme Court's eventual decision on the matter will likely have widespread repercussions on medical malpractice cases in North Carolina and across the country.

Source: Bradenton Herald, "Supreme Court weighs case of disabled child and medical malpractice award," Michael Doyle, Jan. 8, 2012

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