Ferdon ex rel. Petrucelli v. Wisconsin Patients Comp. Fund, 2005 WI 125, 284 Wis. 3d 573, 701 N.W.2d 440
This lawsuit concerned a claim for medical malpractice during childbirth, which left a newborn with a partially paralyzed, deformed arm. A jury awarded the baby $700,000 in noneconomic damages, but a Wisconsin law capped these damages at $350,000. Writing for the majority, Abrahamson declared the law unconstitutional. Due to the cap, people who suffer severe injuries do not receive full compensation for noneconomic damages, whereas people who sustain minor injuries do. The Wisconsin Supreme Court later reversed this decision, but courts around the country remain divided on this issue.
A Wisconsin statute provided that in a personal injury action a plaintiff may recover punitive damages from a tortfeasor who showed “an intentional disregard of the rights of the plaintiff.” Writing for the majority, Abrahamson held that this statute requires the plaintiff to prove that the tortfeasor was aware that its conduct was substantially certain to result in a disregard of the plaintiff’s rights, not that the tortfeasor intended to cause the harm that the plaintiff suffered.
A passenger injured in a car accident sued the county government and its insurers for damages. A statute limited the amount of damages that a government tortfeasor must pay, but not the amount a private tortfeasor would pay for the same accident. Abrahamson held that the legislature had a rational basis for limiting the damages a government tortfeasor must pay: it preserves public funds to ensure that the government can serve the citizenry. However, she further held that if the government tortfeasor has insurance coverage exceeding the statutory limit, the injured party may be compensated from that excess coverage.