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Damage Caps for Medical Malpractice Claims Hurt Patients

 Recent efforts to limit recovery for medical malpractice claims have focused on setting caps on non-economic damages — caps that have repeatedly been struck down by state courts as unconstitutional. Last week, Missouri became the latest state to attempt to enact such limits, when the Missouri House passed a bill to reinstate caps on medical malpractice damages. Missouri’s effort to cap such damages are not new, and closely mirrors Illinois’ own efforts. Both the Missouri and Illinois legislatures had passed laws capping damages for medical malpractice claims in 2005. Both states’ laws were subsequently found to be unconstitutional by the states’ courts. 

Non-economic damages allow plaintiffs to recover for intangible harms such as physical and emotional distress, severe pain, loss of enjoyment of life , and loss of a loved one. These damages are intended to compensate for injuries and losses that may not be as easy to quantify as compensatory damages, which compensate an injured party for lost wages and medical bills. 

In 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court held that caps on non-economic damages that had been enacted as part of a 2005 “tort reform” law were unconstitutional, and voided the entire act. The court held that this legislative cap violated the separation of powers clause in the Illinois constitution. Punitive damages are not allowed under Illinois law. 735 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. § 5/2-1115. 

 Last year, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that a 2005 law limiting non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits violated the constitutional right to trial by jury by limiting the fact-finding ability of the jury. The court reasoned that because Missourians had a common-law right to seek damages for medical malpractice actions when the Missouri constitution was enacted in 1820, the legislature could not proscribe a statutory limit to such damages. Supporters of the current Missouri bill contend that the common-law right to a jury’s determination of damages can be replaced by enacting new legislation. The bill’s sponsor claims these caps will prevent healthcare from becoming less affordable by lowering doctors’ malpractice insurance premiums. The sponsor also contends that the law will keep physicians from leaving the state. 

However, capping non-economic damages may reduce compensation for parties whose injuries can’t easily be translated to a direct financial loss. Non-working plaintiffs, like stay-at-home moms, the retired elderly and children can’t recover compensatory damages for lost wages, regardless of how serious their injuries are. Limiting damages on pain and suffering would drastically reduce the abilities of these groups to seek justice for their injuries. The constitutional right to a jury trial must be protected so that juries can continue to award damages based on their fair evaluation of the loss caused by a doctor’s neglect. Illinois consumer and patient groups should continue to advocate for greater transparency and safety in the medical system, while being prepared to fight any proposed legislation that interferes with a patient’s.

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