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State Considers Bill Instituting Damages Cap

Earlier this month, it was reported that another state house assembly committee voted to elevate a bill to the House floor that would cap certain damages awards in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Previously, Missouri tried to institute a medical malpractice damages cap in 2013, but the bill never made it past the state Senate. If passed, this legislation would create a ceiling of $350,000 in non-economic damages for medical malpractice verdicts. Non-economic damages tend to include pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and other similar damages that do not signify actual economic losses, but rather put a value on other such anguish suffered.

Economic damages, such as medical bills or lost wages as a result of the occurrence of an injury due to malpractice, would not be capped, thus all such tangible and more concretely-measured figures would be accounted for in full in an award. While economic damages are more easily fixed, non-economic damages, because they do not have a concrete basis for quantifying, are arbitrarily determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the circumstances of a case but most of all the makeup of a jury.

The Misguided Argument
The purpose of capping malpractice damages would primarily be to keep malpractice insurance costs lower. Where doctors, hospitals, and medical providers in general are subject to the possibilities of higher jury and bench verdicts in malpractice trials, the realization of those verdicts means that the costs of paying those amounts, which the insurance company assumes on behalf of the policyholder, is passed on to all policyholders through higher premiums. Medical providers in turn pass these premiums onto patients in the form of higher healthcare costs. Though no research actually verifies any of these, proponents argue that a significant advantage to the state would be that keeping insurance premiums lower will help keep good doctors within the state, rather than moving to locations with more favorable damages caps and lower premiums. By keeping the good doctors around, the quality of care potentially increases.

Critics point to certain disadvantages to the proposed cap on non-economic damages. While caps are seen by some as keeping malpractice suits, particularly frivolous ones, in check or completely off court dockets, others see caps as making it more difficult for plaintiffs who wish to bring lawsuits. Placing a ceiling on the recoverable damages effectively takes away the jury’s function of assigning a specific value to an injury. For injuries that would normally be valued at higher than $350,000, the legislature effectively would be assigning it a maximum value of $350,000 rather than allow a jury or judge to deliberate on the actual value they believe pain and suffering, loss of consortium, or other non-economic injuries to have. Others say that caps would help insurance companies by limiting payouts, and victims would not receive what they might otherwise be entitled to receive by a jury.

While Illinois currently does not have a cap on non-economic damages, such policy has been legislated in the last decade. Only an Illinois Supreme Court decision ruled the law unconstitutional. As neighboring states such as Missouri again debate the same question, it will be interesting to see if and how Illinois may approach this issue again in the future.

See Related Blog Posts:

Controversy Over Pain and Suffering Caps
Sometimes Damages Are the Only Question Mark in Medical Malpractice Case