The Illinois Supreme Court recently overturned the state’s five-year-old medical malpractice law because it limited compensation to injured patients for pain, suffering and other non-economic harms. The ruling came down as federal proposals to cap malpractice awards are receiving fresh attention in Washington.
Republicans enthusiastically support the limits, and they are seen as a potential vehicle for restarting the stalled health care negotiations in Congress with bipartisan impetus. Neither the House bill that Democrats passed late last year nor its Senate counterpart included significant changes to medical malpractice regulations.
In a 4-to-2 ruling, the Illinois court wrote that the legislature, in enacting the 2005 law, violated the state Constitution’s separation of powers clause by imposing decisions that should be reserved for judges and juries. The law established caps of $500,000 for non-economic damages in verdicts against doctors and $1 million in cases against hospitals. The decision armed opponents of such provisions with fresh ammunition, and held a particular sting for the American Medical Association, which has its headquarters in Chicago.
Nearly 30 states have laws that limit non-economic damages, although the caps and circumstances for imposing them vary widely. According to the American Medical Association, courts in 16 states have upheld the laws, while those in 11 states have overturned them.
Some of those 11 states have, in turn, passed new laws that seek to satisfy the courts’ objections. In Illinois, the State Supreme Court had twice before struck down laws setting caps on damages in tort cases. The most recent law was enacted to stem a perceived flow of doctors from the state, and in some cases from the profession, because of their inability to afford escalating malpractice insurance premiums.
The state medical society argues that the law has been effective, citing insurance industry figures that show declines in both the number of malpractice claims filed and the cost of premiums.