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Recent Decisions of State Supreme Court Support Victims’ Rights in Nursing Home Abuse Cases

Our Chicago nursing home abuse attorneys were pleased to learn that recently a State Supreme Court has handed down two decisions that represent major improvements for nursing home residents and their families who are seeking justice against negligent or abusive nursing facilities.

In both cases, the State Supreme Court struck down a segment of nursing home arbitration legislation that placed damage caps on awards, restricting them in a way that made the allowable amount far less than what is otherwise legally recoverable in state courts. This is a very important step in protecting victims’ rights, and these rulings may help deter nursing homes in Illinois from lobbying for similar damage caps on residents and their families.

Damage caps (often referred to by their more lengthy epithet, “Non-Economic Damages Caps,”) are controversial tort reforms that attempt to limit the amount of money awarded to victims in Illinois personal injury lawsuits for intangible things such as severe pain, physical and emotional distress, loss of a loved one, or disability and disfigurement.

These types of damages serve to compensate injuries that aren’t easily measured by a dollar amount; for instance, this type of reparation is particularly helpful for victims who don’t otherwise work outside the home. The “worth” of either their contributions to the home, or from their companionship cannot be calculated in terms of definable monetary value, though still an important area of reparation. In short, non-economic damages are the only way a court can compensate a victim for the injury itself, as opposed to just for the out-of-pocket expenses such as medical bills and legal fees.

A number of legal experts have even gone so far as to say that legislation placing limits on non-economic damages is contrary to the Constitution of the United States:
Initially, opponents of caps on damages argue that the limits violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, in that there’s no rational relationship between the objectives that the legislature is hoping to obtain in placing the caps on damages, and the variation of damages allowed to be awarded in different states. In a similar vein, critics of damage limits have also found that caps violate the Separation of Powers doctrine in that they allow the legislature to arbitrarily limit the authority of a jury, which acts as an extension of the judicial branch of the government. Finally, opponents of damage caps argue that placing a maximum on awards violates the constitutional right to a trial by jury; because tort litigation is generally an issue governed under state jurisdictional authority, states have the ability to allow a constitutional right to a trial by jury in tort cases. When the victim is forced to settle the case in capped arbitration, this right is violated.

After hearing the two cases brought before the State Supreme Court, the Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, thereby eradicating the arbitration agreements’ damage caps. The United States Supreme Court has said that they see arbitration clauses as a way to move a case to a different forum, or to promote alternative dispute resolution, but not to change a person’s substantive, inalienable rights afforded by the Constitution. Because of the holdings in these two cases, arbitration agreements in the state will not be able to contain provisions limiting the amount of damages a resident or family member can recover if the damage cap limits are below the amount that the state otherwise allows an individual to recover in court.

Our very own Chicago nursing home negligence attorney John Perconti was interviewed after the decisions were handed down; he said that the Court deciding these cases “has helped the consumer by holding the caps are in violation of the public policy.” Said Perconti, “these opinions should deter nursing homes in other states from imposing damage caps in their agreements.”

“We recommend that a nursing home contract should not be signed if it contains an arbitration provision, and [consumers should] ask that it be stricken from the agreement or they will go elsewhere,” Perconti says. “Nursing homes want to fill their beds and may be [more] willing to strike the provision than lose the revenue.”