The Supreme Court, clearing the way for states to set limits on high medical malpractice awards, yesterday found no constitutional barriers to California's effort to cap such awards.

The court, with Justice Byron R. White dissenting, issued no opinion in dismissing a challenge to California's $250,000 limit on non-economic awards, such as those given for grief or shock, or pain and suffering.

Despite the lack of a formal opinion, constitutional experts such as former solicitor general Rex E. Lee said the ruling sends a message to state legislatures and state courts that such laws are permissible.

Several state courts, citing constitutional provisions, have struck down efforts to deal with what the American Medical Association says is a medical malpractice crisis as insurance rates rise in reaction to massive jury awards.

Limits on jury awards have been upheld by courts in Indiana, Nebraska and California, according to B.J. Anderson, AMA associate general counsel. She said recent studies show that doctors, fearing malpractice litigation, order extra tests as a defensive measure, adding billions of dollars to the nation's medical bills.

The court's action yesterday, Anderson said, was "a very good signal" that will encourage other state legislatures to follow California's example. The 1975 California law, passed in response to what the legislature said was a "crisis," sets a $250,000 limit for "noneconomic losses losses other than wages to compensate for pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, and other non-pecuniary damage."

A jury in a malpractice case awarded $500,000 in noneconomic damages as part of a total $1.3 million award to a man who said that a group of doctors should have diagnosed and prevented his severe heart attack. The trial judge, citing the legal limitations, cut the total award by $250,000. The California Supreme Court upheld the judge's action.

Anderson said some states, such as Arizona, have specific state constitutional prohibitions against limits on any damages awards, and those states will not be affected by the court's ruling.

But laws in other states, with constitutions nearly identical to the federal Constitution, should fare better in state courts, she said.

White, dissenting in Fein v. Permanente Medical Group, said the issue was "deserving of this court's review. Moreover, given the continued national concern over the 'malpractice crisis,' it is likely that more states will enact similar types of limitations, and that the issue will recur."

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The court also agreed yesterday to decide whether the right of the public and the news media to attend criminal trials over the defendant's objection also applies to pretrial hearings.

The case, Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of the State of California, challenges excluding reporters and others from a 41-day pretrial hearing for a California nurse who later pleaded guilty to killing 12 hospital patients in 1981 by administering doses of a heart drug.

The defendant, Robert Rubane Diaz, asked that the courtroom be closed during a preliminary hearing on the case. The judge sealed all transcripts during that period. The California Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 31, 1984 that the First Amendment does not provide a right of access to preliminary hearings.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the press has a right of access to trials, but the California court said that no decision has granted a right of access to preliminary hearings over the objections of the defendant.

In other action yesterday, the justices agreed to decide whether the Federal Trade Commission may force a group of Indiana dentists to submit patients' X-rays to insurance companies as a cost-cutting measure.

The FTC, which has aggressively attempted in recent years to regulate professional groups, argued that the Indiana Dental Association engaged in an illegal action in 1975 when it refused to submit the X-rays. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year ruled for the dentists.