For the third consecutive time, the Illinois Supreme Court has thrown out a law that capped the amount of damages awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits. In Lebron v. Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, a 4-2 majority held that 2005 tort reform laws that limited non-economic damages in medical malpractice actions unconstitutionally violated the separation of powers doctrine.
Under §2-1706.5 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff's recovery for non-economic damages in a medical malpractice action against a physician were limited to $500,000, while actions against a hospital were limited to $1,000,000. Non-economic damages include those awarded for pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, loss of consortium, loss of society and other intangible losses.
In finding this section unconstitutional, the court ruled that it allowed the legislature to interfere with the rights of the judicial branch to determine appropriate damages. The court noted that while it may be difficult to access the true value of non-economic damages, this alone is not a sufficient reason to create an arbitrary cap on these damages. The majority opinion also noted that courts have the authority to overturn jury awards and/or order a new trial in cases where the damages awarded fall out of the range of what is considered fair and reasonable.
The court also rejected the defense's argument that similar constitutional challenges to med mal caps have failed in other states, reasoning that these cases are not controlling on the court.
Background to the Case
In 2006, four-year-old Abigaile Lebron and her mother brought suit against her physician, nurse and Gottlieb Memorial Hospital after Abigaile suffered severe brain damage during a C-section delivery. Part of their complaint alleged that the damages cap was unconstitutional and unfairly punished Abigaile, whose life-altering injuries far exceeded the amounts available for non-economic damages under the law.
Cook County Circuit Judge Diane Larsen ruled in favor of the Lebrons, finding that the cap violated the separation of powers clause of the state constitution. The case was then appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
Third Time's the Charm?
The ruling in the Lebron case marks the third time in more than 30 years that the Illinois Supreme Court has struck down legislature attempts to cap non-economic damages. In 1976, the court ruled in Wright v. Central DuPage Hospital Association, that the $500,000 damages cap was arbitrary and an unconstitutional denial of equal protection.
The legislature was unable to pass a second round of tort reform laws until 1995. This time, the $500,000 non-economic damages cap was extended to all personal injury actions. Two years later in Best v. Taylor Machine Works, the court found the latest cap unconstitutional on several grounds, including that it violated the separation of powers doctrine in the state constitution.
In 2005, the most recent version of the state's tort reform laws was pushed through Springfield. This version of the law set the cap solely for medical malpractice awards. The legislature blamed rising medical malpractice insurance rates for an "exodus" of physicians, and reasoned that caps were necessary to keep doctors in Illinois and ensure patient access to health care.
Damage Caps Unfairly Punish Victims
The court's decision in the Lebron case is a great victory for victims of medical malpractice. Those in favor of damage caps argue that they are necessary to keep the costs of health care down and to keep physicians practicing medicine in the state. However, claims that tort reform laws reduce these costs in Illinois — or any other state for that matter — have been shown to be highly overstated. For example, a report issued last fall by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that tort reform laws, including damage award caps, only decrease the overall costs of health care by an estimated 0.5%.
The truth is that damage caps do nothing more than unfairly punish those who already have been victimized by medical negligence. Only the most severely injured receive awards above $1,000,000 for pain and suffering and other non-economic damages. The ruling in Lebron recognizes the inherent unfairness in punishing victims for their injuries by giving a financial break to those responsible for causing the injuries.
Given the highly politicized fight over health care reform both in Illinois and nationally, it is unlikely that this will be the last attempt by the legislature to pass some type of tort reform in the state. The ruling in Lebron, however, may make it that much more difficult for legislators to craft something that will pass constitutional muster.
For more information on medical malpractice claims, contact an experienced attorney today.