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Protecting Victim’s Rights – A Look at State Supreme Courts that have Struck Down Unconstitutional Caps on Damages

In previous blog posts, we have addressed the obvious dangers that medical malpractice caps on non-economic damages pose to victims and their families. Of course, the debate on tort reform has undoubtedly been controversial. In light of the political waves tort reform continues to cause across the country from California to New York, you may find it interesting, if not helpful, to take a brief look at the state supreme courts that have struck down medical malpractice caps on grounds that such caps violate the states’ constitution.

Non-economic damages – compensation awarded to victims based on harm and loss that cannot be easily quantified in economic terms – have proven to be particularly important in cases involving birth injuries and wrongful deaths resulting from the negligence of medical professionals.

As terrible as a medical malpractice tragedy can be for a victim and their family, having such a misfortune take place in a state where (1) there is a constitutional prohibition on damages caps or (2) the state supreme court has ruled that non-economic damages caps are unconstitutional, can certainly put the affected family in a better position to cope with the terrible tragedy.

State Supreme Courts That Got it Right
Fortunately, in 2010, the Supreme Court of Illinois, our state, is included among the small group of state high-courts that have struck down non-economic damages caps on the grounds that such legislative measures violate the victim’s constitutional rights. There are currently five other states comprising the, hopefully growing, group of state supreme courts that have made the decision to protect citizen’s access to the courts and their right to be awarded compensation that is not limited to only quantifiable economic loss. Those five other states include Alabama, Georgia, New Hampshire, Oregon and Washington.

The American Association for Justice maintains a complete list of “States that Have Declared a Medical Malpractice Damage Cap Unconstitutional” on their website. In addition to state supreme court rulings, this list also includes states that prohibit non-economic damages caps under constitutional provisions – such states include, but are not limited to, Arizona, Kentucky and Wyoming.

Further, there are states like New York and New Jersey that do not have constitutional prohibitions or state supreme court rulings on this particular issue, but they do not have statutory caps on non-economic damages either.

Shannon’s Hope
Last week, a Bloomberg article discussed the decreasingly pervasive misconception that justifiably large monetary verdicts in medical malpractice cases increase medical costs. Within the article, the author also highlighted the recent case of Reilly v. St. Charles Hospital. In this case, a jury found that the negligence of the St. Charles Hospital and the obstetric nurse on duty failed to properly monitor the mother and the fetus resulting in Shannon being diagnosed with a form of cerebral palsy. After enduring an agonizing ten-year battle in the courts, a jury from one of the most conservative counties in the state eventually awarded Shannon $130 million in damages – the second-largest monetary award for damages resulting from medical malpractice negligence in state history.

See Related Blog Posts:
The Fight for Med Mal Fairness – Caps Do Not Improve Access to Medical Care

Does Taking Away Legal Rights of Birth Injury Victims Lower Medical Costs?