Recently California’s Second Appellate District, which includes Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties, ruled that a plaintiff is not entitled to introduce evidence of the full amount billed for medical costs to help prove his or her noneconomic damages, past medical expenses, or future medical expenses. Corenbaum v. Lampkin (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 1308. The significant effect of this ruling is that it is favorable to defendants because it is likely to limit the awards plaintiffs receive for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering.
Several years ago the California Supreme Court in Howell v. Hamilton Meat & Provisions, Inc. (2011) 52 Cal.4th 541 held that a plaintiff in California is only entitled to recover the amount paid by his or her insurer as payment in full for past medical expenses. However, the court in Howell left open the question of whether the billed amount is nevertheless relevant to prove noneconomic damages or future medical expenses. Despite the implied suggestion in the Howell ruling, most plaintiff attorneys still argued that their clients had a right to show a jury the amount actually billed for purposes of proving pain and suffering. That is what happened at the trial court level in Corenbaum.
Corenbaum answered the residual question in Howell by holding that evidence of the full amount billed is not admissible to prove future medical expenses or noneconomic damages when the amount actually paid is less than the billed amount.
The Corenbaum court found that the full amount billed is not relevant to noneconomic damages analysis. The court held that determining noneconomic damages is a highly subjective jury practice. Moreover, Corenbaum expressed that “there is no fixed standard to determine the amount of noneconomic damages.” While lawyers have used the amount of economic damages as one way of getting the jury to determine noneconomic damages, as the Corenbaum court expressed, the full amount billed is not even relevant to economic damages to begin with. Thus, Corenbaum found that evidence of the full amount billed is not admissible for purposes of noneconomic damages.
The Corenbaum court also found that the full amount billed is not relevant in determining future medical expenses. The court noted that if the amount billed was acceptable for proving future medical services and only the actual amount paid was admissible to prove past medical services, the showing of both numbers to the jury would likely lead to confusion of the issues and a violation of the collateral source rule.
As a sub-ruling, the court held that plaintiffs cannot get away with using an expert opinion regarding reasonable value of future medical expenses as an avenue to sneak in the full amount billed. Corenbaum stated that expert conclusions must be grounded on reasonable bases. The court decided that because the health care market is unstable and charges may vary by provider and patient, the billing value is not a reasonable basis. For now Corenbaum closed the path of expert opinions to introduce the amount billed in California’s Second Appellate District.
This new rule is favorable to defendants and is likely to limit the awards plaintiffs receive for noneconomic damages. In addition to the Howell case, Corenbaum shows a trend in California courts towards a more conservative approach to calculating damages in personal injury cases. If upheld, it will also lead to more expediency of trials as defendants will no longer have to worry about filing post-trial motions on the issues of the amount actually billed, since only the amount paid by a provider will be shown to a jury. Importantly, this decision was not rendered by the California Supreme Court, but rather by the Second Appellate District. This holding thus is not precedent throughout the other districts; however, this holding will probably influence the other districts. Moreover, it is likely this case will go before the California Supreme Court, and this new ruling may apply statewide in the future—a likely scenario given the California Supreme Court’s ruling in Howell.
Should you have any questions concerning the impact of this ruling, please feel free to contact our office.
Written by David P. Lenhardt and Daniel J. Kolcz.
Pyka, Lenhardt, Schnaider, Zell
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