By Jamey Dunn
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled today that caps set by the legislature on how much money juries can award victims of medical malpractice are unconstitutional.
The 2005 law limited jury awards for pain and suffering at $500,000 for doctors and $1 million for hospitals. The court upheld a Cook County Circuit Court’s ruling that the law violated the separation of powers between the branches of government. In essence, the court said the General Assembly cannot limit the decision-making power of juries when it comes to awarding money for pain and suffering because it was one branch of government, the legislature, encroaching on the power of another, the judicial.
“It doesn’t matter if somebody thinks it’s a really good idea, or some people thinks it’s wise or some people think there might be something good coming out of it. If it encroaches upon … the three separate branches of government … the [Illinois] Supreme Court is the ultimate decider of whether that violates the Constitution,” said Keith Hebeisen, former president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.
This is the third time the court has found caps on damages unconstitutional.
Hebeisen added the caps created a “one-size-fits-all limit,” and it is impossible for the legislature to determine what is fair without considering the merits of each individual malpractice case.
The law also contained some insurance reforms that were struck down because of a provision that said if part of the statute were found unconstitutional, all of it would be void. Patients' rights advocates and trial lawyers say the reforms should be put back through new legislation.
Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat, said that any legislator who supported the caps should now support restoring the insurance reforms.
House Minority Leader Tom Cross said that he would probably support putting some of the reforms back in place. However, he said that bringing back the insurance reforms on their own will not go far enough to lower the cost of medical malpractice insurance for doctors. He added that Republicans are considering proposing a constitutional amendment to make the caps work.
Supporters of the caps say the rising costs of medical malpractice insurance, due in part to lawsuits, was driving doctors out of the state.
“We had a crisis before we passed this bill, so we are going to react and come up with some ideas where we think we can get back to finding a way to keep doctors in Illinois,” Cross said.
Advocates for medical professionals said the ruling will weaken Illinois’ health care system and make it more difficult for Illinois citizens to find treatment.
“Overturning this law further strains our state’s already-ailing health care system,” Dr. James Milam, president of the Illinois State Medical Society, said in a news release. “Losing medical lawsuit reform heaps even greater pressure on patients and doctors. Something has to give.”
For further background on the topic, see an article written by former bureau chief Bethany Jaeger in 2004.
Thursday, February 04, 2010
By Jamey Dunn