A Cook County Circuit Court judge recently ruled that Public Act 94-677, which imposes caps on damages for all victims of medical malpractice, violates the Illinois Constitution. The statute was original enacted in 2005, following a fierce campaign by the insurance lobby, hospital industry, and many physicians. It caps all non-ecomonic damages at $500,000 per case for doctors and $1 million for hospitals.
Proponents of the statute argued frivolous lawsuits and runaway jury verdicts were causing ski-high insurance rates, which were driving some doctors out of the state. Their solution was this legislation capping damage awards. Opponents of the statute agreed high insurance rates are a problem but argued an arbitrary cap on all medical malpractice cases, regardless of the facts and regardless of the injuries, only serves to punish the most seriously injured victims with meritorious cases. These opponents argued for insurance reform. With the recent record profits of insurance companies, opponents continue to maintain the insurance industry has been taking unfair advantage of doctors and the real solution is still insurance reform.
In determing that the latest cap on damages is unconstitutional, the Circuit Court Judge relied on two prior Illinois Supreme Court decisions including the 1997 decision in Best v. Taylor Machine Works. In Best, the Court struck down a cap on non-economic damages finding it violated the Illinois Constitution' separation of powers clause and amounted to special legislation. Essentially, the Court concluded the lawmakers were interfering with the jury' right to determine fair damages and the right of the trial court to reduce excessive awards. Once again, the Court is being asked to decide whether the newest cap on damages is similarly unconstitutional. However, there is no gaurantee how the Court will rule this time. The current Court has six new members since the decision in Best.