The Illinois Supreme Court did not rule Thursday on whether the state’s medical malpractice law will survive. “It is not unusual for an opinion that is on the anticipated list to be withdrawn before filing,” a spokesman for the high court said. The next batch of Supreme Court opinions is expected in mid-January.
The much-anticipated ruling, which challenges the constitutionality of damage caps for doctors and hospitals, is being watched closely by the health care industry and employers that see caps on damages as a way to tame rising health care costs. Should the high court uphold the law, it could provide momentum for federal malpractice reform.
State lawmakers passed legislation in 2005 that established caps on noneconomic damages of $500,000 in cases against doctors and $1 million against hospitals. The law came after more than two years of political battle between trial lawyers, providers of medical care and their insurers. Doctors blamed the lack of malpractice reform for an exodus of physicians from the state, particularly neurosurgeons and obstetricians who had higher insurance premiums.
“Illinois' unbearable medical litigation crisis forced me to actively look outside of this state to practice medicine,” Dr. Andrew Roth, an obstetrician practicing in suburban Lombard, said in 2005 after the legislation became law. “The signing of this legislation allows me to stay and take care of my patients.”
Though state lawmakers took steps to ensure the law would not be struck down by narrowing the scope of the legislation, doctors and hospitals have been worried about how the Supreme Court would rule. Talk among those in the health care industry this week centered on facets of the legislation that render the law void if justices find just one element unconstitutional.
Twice before in state history, Illinois lawmakers have adopted caps, and both times the Supreme Court eventually nixed them.
The case before the high court comes on appeal from Cook County Circuit Court. In 2007, Cook County Circuit Judge Diane Larsen decided that caps on malpractice awards violated the Illinois Constitution's “separation of powers” clause, in effect ruling that the state Legislature can't interfere with the right of juries and judges to determine fair damages. Larsen's ruling falls in line with a 1997 Illinois Supreme Court decision that overturned a 1995 law implementing caps on personal-injury cases.