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Illinois Supreme Court Bars Medical Malpractice Damages Caps

In 2005, the Illinois legislature enacted a damages caps law, limiting the dollar amount of certain damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. In February 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down this law, stating that the legislature overstepped its bounds, interfering with the court’s ability to assess fair damage awards.

Medical Malpractice Damages Cap

Effective Aug. 25, 2005, 735 ILCS 5/2-1706.5 prohibited jury awards as follows:

  • Against physicians and personnel, awards cannot exceed $500,000
  • Against hospitals and their affiliates, awards cannot exceed $1 million

The law applies to noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits and also wrongful death lawsuits that are based on medical malpractice. Noneconomic damages are intangible damages, such as damages for disability, disfigurement, loss of consortium, loss of society, and pain and suffering.

According to the Act’s findings, the increasing cost of medical liability insurance has resulted in increased financial burdens on physicians and hospitals and was even believed to have contributed to the decline in the availability of medical care in some areas across the state. The legislature therefore took actions, including limiting noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, purportedly in order to preserve the public health, safety, and welfare.

Illinois Supreme Court Reviews Lebron v. Gottlieb Memorial Hospital

In a complaint filed in November 2006, Abigaile Lebron claimed that she suffered numerous permanent and debilitating injuries, including severe brain injury and cerebral palsy. She alleged that her injuries were the result of negligence by the hospital, doctor and nurse where her mother delivered her. As part of the case, Lebron asked the court to determine that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages violated the state constitution.

In Lebron v. Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, the Illinois Supreme Court referred back to a prior decision, noting that although noneconomic injuries are difficult to assess, such difficulty is not alleviated by imposing an arbitrary damages limitation in all cases, without regard to the specific facts or circumstances. Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, writing for the majority, stated that the statute impinged on the authority of the courts.

The doctrine of remittitur is used to correct excessive jury verdicts; the court has a duty to correct excessive awards by ordering a remittitur (a lowering of the damages amount), with the plaintiff’s consent. If the plaintiff does not consent, the court has a duty to order a new trial. The statute, however, supplants court authority to determine appropriate jury awards on a case-by-case basis. Finding that the legislature overstepped its bounds, violating the separation of powers doctrine by encroaching on judicial power, the court struck down the law.

The Controversy Over Med Mal Caps

State Representative Tim Schmitz calls the Lebron decision a big step backward in efforts to ensure families statewide have access to quality healthcare. He claims that at one point, there were no neurosurgeons anywhere in southern Illinois because, considered high risk specialists, their insurance premiums in the state were astronomical. As a result of the 2005 damages caps law, he continued, doctors were returning to the state, medical malpractice premiums were decreasing and more insurance companies were offering coverage to Illinois doctors.

On the other hand, according to a Chicago Business article by Mike Colias, the malpractice insurance rates for Illinois have followed national trends. Critics of the caps law contend that natural underwriting cycles and other state reforms are responsible for making the insurance market more competitive.

In a Legal Newsline article by Chris Rizo, he states the Illinois trial bar hailed the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision. The article quotes Peter Flowers, Illinois Trial Lawyers Association President, as saying, “Our health care system is reeling and rather than trying to fix it, insurance companies across the country have tried to divert attention from the real reforms that would improve access and care.” In a press release, the association stated that the Illinois Supreme Court has decided that the health care crisis cannot be solved by placing the burden of medical errors on the backs of patients who are victims of medical errors.

Patients who have suffered injury or unexpected results in hospitals should contact a knowledgeable personal injury attorney to determine how to proceed. If the patient has a claim, a knowledgeable lawyer can discuss the important element of causation with patients, as well as assist in assessing the value of patients’ claims.