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State Court Judge Urges Reconsideration of Damage Cap Law Following Medical Malpractice

Illinois residents are fortunate in that several years ago our state Supreme Court struck down the unconstitutional law that placed arbitrary caps on damages in medical malpractice cases. As a result, local patients seriously harmed by misconduct are able to receive compensation for the full consequences of their loss, allowing the best chance of full recovery.

Unfortunately, residents elsewhere, including neighboring states, are still shackled by arcane laws that prevent them from getting anywhere close to full recovery following injury caused by others. The situation is so bad in some areas that even judges who are forced to uphold rulings are asking higher courts to consider a chance.

Court Opinion in Medical Malpractice Case
As discussed in a recent Wisconsin State Journal story, one circuit judge judge recently issued a ruling in a medical malpractice appeal. The legal matter involved a patient who died in 2010. He went to a local hospital with chest pains and shortness of breath. He was admitted to the hospital, but throughout his two day stay he was never given a blood test to check for clots. Only four days after his discharged he died suddenly as a result of lung clots.

Shortly thereafter his wife brought a suit against the public hospital involved, alleging that they acted negligently, not performing necessary diagnostic procedures which would have caught the problem. The case went to trial and a jury found that the hospital acted negligently. They awarded the wife $1.8 million.

However, based on a long-standing law in the state, all municipalities, including the hospital here which is owned by the government, capped damages at $250,000 (individual doctors not employed by the public have a $750,000 cap).

After the jury award was arbitrarily reduced, the family appealed the decision and the law. On appeal, the judge upheld the reduction, citing past case precedent that tied his hands. However, in his opinion he wrote dicta (comments that are not directly binding or relevant to the opinion of the case) suggesting that the law might be struck down by the state Supreme Court.

More specifically, even though the judge ruled against the plaintiffs, he wrote, “”I believe the plaintiffs provide cogent arguments that deserve close examination by our Supreme Court, which is the only court that can modify or overrule the decisions that I believe are controlling.”

Part of the argument is the fact that the very low cap put in place nearly 35 years ago, are worth less in today’s value than when first passed, because the amount are not pegged to inflation. For example, the $250,000 cap when first created is equivalent to $72,000 today. The judge pointed out that it’s hard to believe that the constitutional tests for caps are met when the plaintiff only receives 14% of what the jury awarded.

Similarly, the appellate judge suggested that the underlying roots of these laws which provide some protection to state and local governments are ill-suited in certain settings, particularly the practice of medicine.

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