Constitutional challenges are usually the legal actions that garner the most media attention. One need only turn on any news channel this week, for example, to hear extended talk about the U.S. Supreme Court hearings on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The fascination with constitutional challenges is not surprising because, unlike regular civil actions, the outcomes will usually affect all community members—not just the individual parties in the individual suit.
Constitutional cases essentially always involve conduct by the government. After all, the constitution only binds public entities, not private citizens. In many cases, these legal suits challenge laws passed by legislators. The challenges can be made at the federal level (like the one directed at Obamacare) or at the state level. Our Illinois birth injury lawyers know that when it comes to state constitutions, perhaps no constitutional challenges have garnered more attention than those directed at state tort reform laws.
In Illinois, our state legislator passed a law in 2005 that placed an arbitrary cap on non-economic damages that Illinois medical malpractice plaintiffs could receive, regardless of the jury determination. In 2010, a legal challenge of that law reached the Illinois Supreme Court. At that time the court found the law unconstitutional because it violated the separation of powers clause in the state constitution.
Many community members are unfamiliar with the mechanics of these constitutional challenges. With some variations, in most cases there are specific requirements that have to be met before a challenge to the law can even be brought forward. For one thing, not just anyone can constitutionally challenge any law that they do not like. Instead, a plaintiff must have “standing.” In general, this requires that the plaintiff actually be affected by the law in question.
This principle is perhaps best explained by considering a current challenge to a state’s damage cap law. As reported in the News-Leader, this week the Missouri Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to a law in the state that caps the amount of money that plaintiffs in medical malpractice lawsuits can recover. The challenge is not being made in a vacuum, however, but is instead filed by a family who had previously won a birth injury lawsuit.
In the suit, the family alleged that the medical team involved in the birth of their son failed to notice that he was in fetal distress. As a result of their mistakes, the boy suffered permanent and severe injuries. He has cerebral palsy, cannot walk, and will he need very close care throughout his life. The jury in the case agreed that the child’s injuries were caused by negligence. They awarded the family $1.45 million in non-economic damages. However, because of the cap law, the family will receive less than ¼ of that actual non-economic damage award.
Following the imposition of the law in their specific case, the plaintiffs appealed and filed the constitutional challenge to the law, arguing that it violated the right to a jury trial guaranteed by the Missouri constitution. Had the family not first won a verdict and had the award cut by the law, then they likely would not have had standing to challenge the ruling.
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