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.