The Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case which calls into question the constitutionality of caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases in that state. An Illinois trial court ruled last year in Lebron v. Gottlieb Memorial Hospital that the law violates the Constitution’s separation of powers clause by allowing the General Assembly to restrict deliberations by judges and juries. Circuit Court Judge Diane J. Larsen ruled that the cap on damages “operates as a legislative remittitur which ‘disregards the jury’s careful deliberative process in determining damages that will fairly compensate injured plaintiffs who have proven their causes of action'” and thus violates separation of powers. The full text of the ruling can be viewed by clicking here.
Illinois Trial Lawyers Association President Bruce Kohen praised Judge Larsen’s decision, calling it “an important victory for the rule of law and constitutional government over the rule of special interests.” He added that “today’s ruling provides further confirmation that, despite the power and influence of the insurance lobby, laws that violate the state’s Constitution will not stand.”
We have repeatedly noted that these efforts at “reform” are misguided and unjust. Our previous blog posts on the topic can be found by clicking here. These types of tort deform make bad law and do not encourage or mandate that individuals take responsibility for their actions. In 2007, Public Citizen issued a must-read report entitled The Great Medical Malpractice Hoax which goes to the heart of the issues being tested in the Illinois courts. The report examines the issue of medical liability in two parts. The first part reviews NPDB data and shows that the claims of the business and medical lobbies are exaggerated and unsupported by the facts. The second part examines data related to physician error and discipline. This section notes some disturbing trends and reveals that the real medical crisis is the high incidence of preventable medical error, as well as the lack of accountability for a small set of doctors who commit a substantial number of avoidable errors that seriously injure patients.
The Wall Street Journal is touting the benefit of medical malpractice reforms without in any way acknowledging the harms they have wrought on innocent consumers. In an editorial in today’s paper, the WSJ editors applaud the fact that in 2005 the Illinois legislature passed a law that artificially capped medical malpractice jury awards for pain and suffering at $500,000 against doctors and $1 million against hospitals.
Lawyers opposing the caps argued that the 2005 law limiting the amount of money juries may award in medical malpractice cases unfairly targets those most seriously injured who deserve the most compensation. It has been suggested that everyone must sacrifice on so-called tort reform efforts. But the sacrifice is uneven, said Michael Gottesman, a Georgetown University law professor representing Abigaile LeBron and her mother. The LeBron family’s non-economic damages, for example, might far exceed the caps, Gottesman said. In the case of a wealthy person whose injury causes millions of dollars in lost income, he would recover all of it because the law puts no restrictions on jury awards of economic damages.
“Even though the attorney general says health care consumers ought to contribute to the solution, the only people being asked to contribute to this solution are the most seriously injured people – almost by definition the people least capable of making this contribution,” Gottesman said.
The American Bar Association submitted a friend of the court brief urging the Illinois Supreme Court to find the caps unconstitutional. That brief can be viewed by clicking here.
You can view the oral arguments from the case by clicking here.