Unconstitutionality of Med Mal Damages Caps

Posted By Kansas City Personal Injury Attorney || 16-Sep-2011

[Un]Constitutionality of caps

Non-economic damages caps are controversial tort reforms to limit (i.e., "cap") damages for intangible harms such as severe pain, physical and emotional distress, disfigurement, loss of the enjoyment of life that an injury has caused, including sterility, loss of sexual organs, physical impairment and loss of a loved one, etc. These are, collectively, referred to as hedonic damages.

Non-economic damages compensate injuries and losses that are not easily quantified by a dollar amount. Also known as quality-of-life damages, this compensation covers the family of victims who have died, or severely injured victims. Below are some reasons why such caps are unconstitutional and should be overturned wherever overzealous legislatures pass them.

Right to trial by jury

Opponents of caps on damages argue that caps on the amount of damages jurors can award violate the right to a trial by jury. Because tort law has historically been a question of state law, states have the power to establish a constitutional right to a trial by jury in civil cases. Historically, juries have decided both the question of liability and the question of how much damages to award in tort cases, subject to instructions on the law by a judge. Several state appellate courts that have considered the issue have struck down damages caps as violative of state constitutions.

Separation of powers

Some tort reform supporters, such as the conservative Federalist Society, have criticized such decisions as a violation of the concept of separation of powers.

In contrast, critics of caps contend and state courts have held that legislatures violate the principle of separation of powers when they attempt to impose arbitrary damage caps on juries, who function as part of the judicial branch of government. In Best v. Taylor Machine Works, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that a $500,000 cap on non-economic damages functioned as a "legislative remittitur" and invaded the power of the judiciary, in violation of the separation of powers clause. The court noted that courts are empowered to reduce excessive verdicts where appropriate in light of the evidence. The cap, however, reduced damages by operation of law, without regard to the specific circumstances of the case.

Equal protection

In 2005, a Wisconsin court ruled that a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases violates the state's equal protection guarantee. In Ferdon v. Wisconsin Patient's Compensation Fund, the court ruled that there was no rational relationship between the objectives identified by the legislature that were intended to prevent a medical liability crisis in Wisconsin and treating people with more severe injuries and higher noneconomic damage awards different from people with lower noneconomic damage awards.