Four state supreme courts are set to decide whether to do away with caps on non-economic damages in malpractice cases. The institution of caps on damages first began in California, the initial state to enact such a law in 1975. Since then, about 30 states have followed suit in an attempt at tort reform and in the hopes of alleviating rising insurance costs for physicians.
Proponents of the caps believe that they are necessary to prevent massive malpractice awards and skyrocketing insurance premiums that might drive physicians out of medicine. Opponents believe that limiting damages violates the constitution and interferes with the legal rights of plaintiffs to have their cases heard and decided upon (including awards) by juries. Tort caps only affect non-economic damages – for example, pain and suffering or loss of consortium. Economic damages, such as medical expenses and lost wages, are never capped.
Georgia ($350,000 cap), Illinois ($500,000 cap), and Oklahoma ($400,000 cap unless willful misconduct is proven) all have decisions pending regarding whether to do away with limits on damages. A fourth case, in Maryland, will be argued in November, and only addresses whether state caps on damages should apply to cases that are resolved via arbitration. Arguments against the caps generally focus on whether a state legislature’s decision to put an arbitrary limit on a plaintiff’s monetary recovery interferes with the plaintiff’s constitutional right to a trial, since the jury’s decision as to damages is effectively nullified by the cap.