Throughout the last year our Illinois medical malpractice attorneys have shared information on the still active piece of proposed federal legislation known as H.R. 5. The bill seeks to federally mandate that all states impose medical malpractice damage caps in certain civil actions. This runs counter to the long-standing practice of allowing states to make their own decisions about these legal issues, besides being a dramatically unnecessary and damaging attack on victim’s rights. Besides simply being bad legislation, legal scholars on all sides of the spectrum have lined up to explain how it also violates the federal constitution.
A recent editorial in the National Law Journal clearly lays out the case for the bill’s unconstitutionality. Specifically, the scholar explains how the legislation-which forces changes to state tort law-cannot be squared with the Seventh Amendment. T he amendment guarantees all the right to a trial by jury. The court has consistently found that this right guarantees that juries are the ‘judges of damages.” In other words, part of the right to a jury trial is a right to have that jury decide what type and value of damage occurred in the case. Therefore laws that fail to take this into account violate the fundamental aspect of the amendment and would not withstand constitutional scrutiny.
Only ten years ago the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed this position specifically as it relates to the jury’ determination of noneconomic damage (what are the target of H.R. 5). In that latest case the court was clear in distinguishing between punitive damages (which are meant to symbolize a society’s disgust with certain conduct) and noneconomic damages which remain “a question of historical or predictive fact” that must remain within the exclusive control of the jury. The general thrust of these medical malpractice decisions was the reaffirmation of the requirement that juries must be the final arbiter of these damage rulings.
Additionally, there is a strong argument to be made that these caps constitute and unconstitutional “taking.” Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has hinted at this fact. Medical malpractice caps essentially mean that the state takes away something of value to an individual victim without compensating them for that taking. In these cases, the jury has essentially created a value for an individual by deciding upon damages for the loss that they suffered. The state therefore cannot take away that thing of value without compensating the individual for their actions. This is a basic property principle that should not be forgotten in this debate.
Without question our Chicago medical malpractice lawyers believe that all community members deserve to maintain their fundamental right to a jury right. All those who understand the importance of protecting this right to a jury trial should stand arm-in-arm against this unnecessary invasion of that principle. While big interests and deep pockets may be behind the effort to curtail these individual rights, the majority of community members continue to understand that there is no benefit from taking away basic rights that have been preserved since our nation’s founding.
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