• Georgia Supreme Court Invalidates Key Provision of State's 2005 Tort Reform Act
  • April 8, 2010
  • Law Firm: King & Spalding LLP - Atlanta Office
  • Last week the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously invalidated a key provision of the 2005 Tort Reform Act that capped plaintiffs’ noneconomic damages. In its ruling in Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery PC v. Nestlehutt, the Court said that the statutory limitations on damages violated the state constitution because they infringed upon plaintiffs’ jury trial rights by nullifying a jury’s finding of facts regarding the amount of damages owed.

    The noneconomic damages caps, embodied in O.C.G.A. § 51-13-1, protected health care providers from excessive damages relating to plaintiffs’ pain and suffering and emotional distress, among other injuries. The 2005 law limited those types of damages to $350,000 against a single provider; to $700,000 against more than one provider; and to $1.05 million against multiple providers. In its decision, the Court said that the amount of the caps was irrelevant to its determination of unconstitutionality because “[t]he very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury.”

    The Georgia Supreme Court upheld two other provisions of the 2005 Tort Reform Act in decisions earlier this month, however. In a 4-3 decision, the Court upheld a requirement in Ga. Code. Ann. § 51-1-29.5 that plaintiffs must show “clear and convincing evidence” of gross negligence to recover when suing an emergency room provider for malpractice. In a separate 5-2 decision, the Court affirmed the law’s “offer of settlement” provision in Ga. Code Ann. § 9-11-68(b), which requires a non-prevailing party to pay attorneys’ fees if that party rejected a settlement offer that closely approximated a final judgment award.