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State Questions Constitutionality of Cap on Med Mal Damages

What is commonly referred to as “tort reform” is a scheme to limit the amount of non-economic damages that may be awarded to the individuals who have suffered personal injury, or the families of victims of wrongful death. Non-economic damages compensate sufferers for harms that can’t easily be quantified by a dollar amount, but that nevertheless are very real grievances. Examples of non-economic damages include harms such as severe pain and suffering, physical disability or disfigurement, the loss of a loved one’s company, as well as many others.

Tort reform seeks to arbitrarily limit the amount of money that may be paid to the families of victims who have died, or persons who have suffered severe injury.

Right now, eight years after state legislators placed a cap on damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, Florida lawmakers are preparing for what may turn out to be a monumental change in Florida judicial proceedings. A case may soon reach the Florida Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of a cap on legal damages, and either way, the decision will be tremendously significant.

The case arises from the death of a 20 year-old Florida woman, shortly after she gave birth. After a court ruled that the family of the deceased should receive $3 million, including $2 million worth of non-economic damages, the award had to be reduced to $1 million because of the 2003 tort reform overhaul.

The cutback was appealed, and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cap on damages does not violate the Federal constitution, but given the appellate court’s decision, it is likely that the case will move up to the State Supreme Court for further review.

Proponents of damage caps claim that a reduction of awards may make medical malpractice insurance more affordable to doctors, which in turn would make health care more affordable. But what about the families of victims? Is it fair to ask the relatively few of them to be punished a second time by absorbing the cost of the public benefit?

Beyond the fact that non-economic damages provide remuneration for individuals who have suffered a loss as a result of someone else’s negligence, large awards often also serve to send a message to the public, teaching them the risks associated with their potential negligence, and drawing attention to common problems.

From a purely constitutional perspective, opponents of caps on damages in personal injury lawsuits and medical malpractice cases cite three main portions of the constitution that are violated by these damage caps:
1. Challengers of tort reform allege that setting a limit to the amount of money jurors can award to victims violates an individual’s constitutional right to a trial by jury.
2. Critics of damage caps assert that when one branch of the government – the legislature – tells the court how to act by imposing these caps, it infringes upon the separation of powers.
3. And finally, criticizers of tort reform contend that the fact that each state sets different caps on damages violates the Equal Protection Clause, which is supposed to ensure fair treatment across each state. The question that is asked is, if the same exact injury occurs in two different states, why should one victim be limited by damage caps while the other is not.

The American Bar Association has made a public claim that it opposes non-economic damages, and fortunately damage caps are not in place in Illinois. If you or a loved one have suffered a serious personal injury, or if you have lost a loved one due to another’s negligence, an attorney may be able to advise you of your rights.