Should there be caps on damages in medical malpractice cases?

The Illinois Supreme Court struck down a 2005 law that capped damages in medical malpractice cases, saying the law violated the separation of powers doctrine. The Illinois law, passed in 2005, capped damages against individual doctors at $500,000 and $1,000,000 for claims against hospitals.Many states have passed legislation as part of a tort reform effort, seeking to limit the amount of damages an individual can recover in a medical malpractice case.

The Illinois Justices, however, were unpersuaded by the argument that other states have passed similar legislation, noting that "That ‘everybody is doing it," is hardly a litmus test for the constitutionality of the statute." The court also felt the law violated the separation of powers doctrine by allowing the legislature to control the ability of the judiciary to enact verdicts. 

The issues is controversial, to the say the least, in Illinois. Doctors argued reform was needed to stop the mass exodus of physicians, who were fleeing because of the high insurance premiums. Trial lawyers, on the other hand, argued caps are a disservice to individuals who have been harmed by doctor malpractice. This is the third time the Illinois legislature has passed a cap on damages, only to see the Supreme Court invalidate the law.

Arguably, caps on damages would allow for lower premiums, which would in turn allow doctors and hospitals to provide cheaper medical services. On the other hand, doctors and hospitals can still run profitable businesses with higher premiums, they do not have a magnificent chilling effect. Individuals who suffer more damage than the cap would allow are the real victims of the cap.

Perhaps a more modest, and workable solution is instituting caps, but at a higher level. $500,000 may not even cover medical expenses in some cases. A child who suffers a lifetime injury would easily have more than $500,000 in future medical expenses. The difficulty, however, is determining what number damages are capped at. Five million? Ten million? At a certain point, the number is so high one could argue the cap is pointless. 

Given the history of attempted reform in both Illinois and throughout the rest of the country, this is not the last we have heard of this issue.

Illinois top court strikes down medical malpractice caps | Chicago Tribune



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