I can think of few laws as unfair as “damages cap” laws. For those readers unfamiliar with this concept, let me explain. A “damages-cap” law essentially says that, in a personal injury or medical malpractice lawsuit, the injured plaintiff is limited to a certain amount of compensation for his or her “non-economic” damages, no matter how devastating the injury. “Non-economic damages” essentially means compensation for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.
The unfairness of damages caps can best be shown by way of example:
Patient A undergoes neck surgery, his surgeon commits medical malpractice, he ends up with moderate but permanent pain running down both arms. Full and fair compensation for this annoying, painful sensation for a lifetime is about $500,000. Patient A goes to court, the jury awards him $500,000, and he gets it. He is fully and fairly compensated for his injury.
Patient B undergoes the same operation, the surgeon commits medical malpractice, but this time renders the patient QUADRIPLEGIC. Patient B is now nothing but a head on a pillow for the rest of his life. Patient B goes to court, the jury says he should get $3,000,000, but the judge says, “sorry, the medical malpractice damages cap law requires me to reduce this verdict to $500,000, which is the maximum allowable, no matter what the injury”.
So the guy with the less serious injury gets full and fair compensation for his injury, while the guy with the devastating, catastrophic injury gets pennies-on-the-dollar for his injury. Sound fair? Of course not.
The Illinois Supreme Court doesn’t think it’s fair either. Just this week, in Lebron v. Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, the Court overturned the State of Illinois’ landmark 2005 “Medical Malpractice Reform Law”, which featured a $500,000 cap on medical malpractice pain-and-suffering damages. The Court ruled the law unconstitutional because it violated the principle of “separation of powers”. In other words, the LEGISLATIVE branch of government should mind its own business and not tell the JUDICIAL branch of government how much it can award for pain and suffering in court.
This is a big win for trial lawyers and patients’ rights advocates, and a black eye for tort-reformers.
I hate damages caps because I love justice. Damages caps are unfair because they disproportionately impact those who have suffered the worst injuries. Why should only the catastrophically injured “pay” for tort reform?
Several courts around the United States agree with me. They have tossed out such laws, either because they violate the separation of powers, or because they deny citizens the right to a fair jury trial, or because they violate equal protection principles.
Fortunately, New York State has never adopted damages caps, though the insurance industry has had its cronies in Albany propose such laws. Let’s hope our legislature never passes such a law and, if it does, that New York courts would have the guts to strike them down as unconstitutional.