Illinois Medical Malpractice Damage Cap Struck Down by State High Court

The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s cap on damages in medical malpractice lawsuits is unconstitutional and violates the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches of the government.

The 4-2 ruling, issued last Thursday, struck down a law capping non-economic damages in Illinois malpractice cases, which had been in place since 2005. It is the third time that the state’s highest court has ruled against medical malpractice caps.

Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald said that the state’s attempt to override the will of a jury with a cap on malpractice awards in Illinois “runs afoul of the separation of powers clause.” Fitzgerald called the caps, which limited non-economic damages to $500,000 for physicians and $1 million for hospitals, arbitrary and said that the caps did not regard facts or circumstances. Fitzgerald said that the cap eroded the consistency and rationality of the state’s justice system.

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The law was brought to the court on appeal after it was ruled unconstitutional by Cook County Circuit Judge Diane Larsen in an Illinois malpractice suit brought by the family of Abigaile LeBron, an infant girl who suffered brain damage at birth. Larsen, echoing a similar Illinois Supreme Court decision that struck down a 1995 medical malpractice cap, said that the legislature stepped on the jurisdiction of juries and judges by enacting the cap.

Justices Anne Burke, Charles Freeman, and Thomas Kilbride ruled along with Fitzgerald to reject the ban. Justices Lloyd Karmeier and Rita Garman dissented, referencing health care costs and the needs for reform. Fitzgerald and the majority judges stated that their decisions on constitutionality could not be influenced by those factors, however.

California was the first state to enact a damage cap in 1975, specifically limiting the non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2005 ten states capped recoveries specifically on medical malpractice cases and another 22 have caps that are not limited to medical malpractice. About a dozen states also have caps on punitive damages.

Similar caps are facing legal challenges in Missouri, Indiana and Georgia.

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