In a highly anticipated and much watched decision, the Illinois Supreme Court has struck down the state’s statutory $500,000 cap on noneconomic damages. Noneconomic damages are defined in the statute as “damages that are intangible, including but not limited to damages for pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, loss of consortium, and loss of society.” The statute took effect in 2005, limiting awards to $500,000 for health care practitioners and $1 million for hospitals.

Shortly after the enactment of the statute, the Illinois Supreme Court case of Lebron v. Gottlieb Memorial Hospital challenged the medical malpractice cap. The case involved a baby born via Cesarean section in a Cook County hospital with numerous permanent injuries, including severe brain damage, cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment. In this particular case, the noneconomic damages far exceeded the statutory cap, prompting the plaintiff to argue that the statute was unconstitutional in that it violates the separation of powers clause of the Illinois constitution.

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed, holding that the statutory cap “unduly encroaches upon the fundamentally judicial prerogative of determining whether a jury’s assessment of damages is excessive within the meaning of the law.” In effect, the court said, that the 2005 statute allows the legislature to usurp the power of the judiciary and “override the jury’s deliberative process and reduce any noneconomic damages in excess of the statutory cap, irrespective of the particular facts and circumstances, and without the plaintiff’s consent.” This is a violation of the separation of powers clause, the court held.

This is not the first time that the Illinois Supreme Court has overturned a statutory cap on damages. It did so in another case in 1997, yet the new cap was enacted in 2005.  What does the future hold for Illinois? One republican Senator in the state has already introduced a constitutional amendment seeking to prevent the state’s high court from overturning future medical malpractice reform laws.