Illinois medical malpractice lawyers who represent victims and their clients were pleased with the ruling last week by Cook County Circuit Court Judge Joan Diane Larsen that caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases violates the Illinois Constitution. Under the law (Public Act 94-667), plaintiffs could be awarded no more than $500,000 in non-economic damages against doctors and $1 million against hospitals. Non-economic damages are generally damages for pain and suffering, disability, and disfigurement.
The Illinois Supreme Court has twice ruled as unconstitutional caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases in Wright v. Central Du Page Hospital, 63 Ill. 2d 313, 347 N.E. 2d 736 (1976), and in wrongful death and injury cases in Best v. Taylor Machine Works, 179 Ill. 2d 367, 689 N.E. 2d 1057 (1997). In Best, the high court observed: Under our constitution, the three branches of government-legislative, executive, and judicial-are separate and one branch shall not “exercise powers properly belonging to another.” Ill. Const. 1970, art. II, sec. 1. 179 Ill. 2d at 410, 689 N.E. 2d at 1078. The Illinois Supreme Court traced judicial authority by noting: For over a century it has been a traditional and inherent power of the judicial branch of government to apply the doctrine of remittitur, in appropriate and limited circumstances, to correct excessive jury verdicts. Best, 179 Ill. 2d at 411, 689 N.E. 2d at 1079.
In concluding that 735 ILCS 5/2-1115.1 (the cap) violates the separation of powers clause of the Illinois Constitution (1970). Art. II, sec.1, the Best court held: …because the legislature cannot make such case-by-case determinations, separations of powers concerns would be violated by the “legislative attempt to mandate legal conclusions.”….we conclude that section 2-1115.1 invades the power of the judiciary to limit excessive awards of damages. The courts are constitutionally empowered, and indeed obligated, to reduce excessive verdicts where appropriate in light of the evidence adduced in a particular case. Section 2-1115.1, however reduces damages by operation of law, without regard to the specific circumstances of individual jury awards. 179 Ill. 2d at 660, 689 N.E. 2d at 1081.
Last week’s decision, relying on Wright and Best, stated: …the court hereby enters judgment declaring 735 ILCS 5/2-1706.5. as enacted by Public Act 94-677, unconstitutional in violation of the Separation of Powers Clause of the Illinois Constitution. (Judge Larsen’s order of November 13, 2007). This decision striking down damage caps in medical malpractice cases will be appealed directly to the Illinois Supreme Court, which may render a decision as early as next summer. While not directly involved in the decision, the ruling has the effect of preserving the right to a jury trial in civil actions, which is protected by both the Illinois and U.S. Constitutions; (see Wright, supra). If jury trials are merely advisory and the power to award damages is vested in the legislature, which does not evaluate evidence on a case-by-case basis, what is the point of having juries evaluate damage claims and judges review their verdicts?
The separation of powers argument that was central to the decision was not only persuasive and supported by precedent, bur it also makes common sense. If hospitals, doctors and health care providers can petition their legislators to limit damage awards that can be rendered against them, why not accountants, engineers, lawyers, pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers, etc. Our judicial system through its judges not only has the authority, but also the obligation to reduce damage awards that do not fairly reflect the evidence presented at trial. This is as it should be.