State Supreme Courts Differ On Constitutionality Of Medical Malpractice Award Caps


Various state supreme courts have issued rulings on challenges to the constitutionality/legality of statutory caps on non-economic damages, such as damages for pain and suffering, awarded to plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases. Their opinions have varied greatly with some striking down such limitations and others upholding them.

In August of 2009 the California Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal that tried to overturn the state’s  $250,000  cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. A recent 5th District Court of Appeal decision had upheld the constitutionality of the cap.

In March of 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the state’s statutory $500,000 cap on non-economic damages. Non-economic damages are defined in the statute as “damages that are intangible, including but not limited to damages for pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, loss of consortium, and loss of society.” The statute took effect in 2005, limiting awards to $500,000 for health care practitioners and $1 million for hospitals.

One month later the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a cap on malpractice damages is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of court and legislature and takes away a jury’s fundamental role in determining damages.

In July of 2011, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled to keep the cap in their $250,000/500,000 cap place  in a 4-to-1 decision . “While one or more members of the majority may differ with the legislative reasoning, it is not our prerogative to substitute our judgment for that of the legislature, so long as the classification is rational and bears a reasonable relationship to a proper governmental purpose,” said the Court in its ruling.

In July of 2012, in a 4-3 decision, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the current $350,000 limit on awards for pain and suffering was unconstitutional because it deprives patients of their right to a trial by jury. The Court held that when the Missouri Constitution was enacted in 1820, residents of the state had a common law right to seek damages for medical malpractice claims. “Any limit on damages that restricts the jury’s fact-finding role violates the constitutional right to trial by jury,” said the Court.

And this month the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled the law, which caps non-economic damages at $250,000 is not unconstitutional and can stand. In its decision, the Court held that the law, enacted in 1988, remains an adequate remedy despite the fact that the sum of money is not worth as much as it had been two decades ago. In its opinion, the court noted that while the cap does restrict the common law right to compensation for damages, the legislature “has substituted an adequate statutory remedy for the modification of the individual rights at issue.” “We hold that it is “reasonably conceivable” … that imposing a limit on non-economic damages furthers the objective of reducing and stabilizing insurance premiums by providing predictability and eliminating the possibility of large non-economic damages awards,” the majority wrote. Two justices were in descent.


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