The Georgia Supreme Court in a unanimous opinion issued last week held that the state’s $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases violates the right to a jury trial that the Georgia Constitution guarantees. Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery v. Nestlehutt, 2010 WL 1004996 (Mar. 22, 2010). Georgia is the latest state supreme court to overrule a damages cap on constitutional grounds.
Writing for the Court, Judge Carol Hunstein observed that “[t]he very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury. . . .” A trial court’s reduction of an award determined by a jury “clearly nullifies the jury’s findings of fact regarding damages and thereby undermines the jury’s basic function. . . .”
The Illinois Supreme Court recently deemed it’s state’s damages cap unconstitutional on other grounds. The Kansas Supreme Court is considering the issue. The Court of Appeals of Maryland, however, upheld the state’s cap on malpractice claims. Oral argument will be held tomorrow in another Maryland case challenging the general damages cap on non-medical malpractice cases. The argument can be viewed on the Maryland Judiciary Web Page.
The Washington D.C. nonprofit organization, Public Citizens, has been involved in many of the challenges to state damages caps. In a 2009 report issued by the organization, it found that reforms such as damage caps “are divorced from the data, which show declining litigation costs, declining payments to injured patients, and an extremely low rate of compensation for even the most serious injuries.” The report also analyzed data from the National Practitioner Data Bank that reveals that medical malpractice settlements and verdicts have gone down, as have the costs of malpractice litigation, even as overall health care costs have risen.
Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz remains committed to the cause of plaintiffs and will continue to report on all developments on damages caps across the country.