• Illinois Supreme Court Strikes Down Statutory Cap on Non-Economic Damages in Medical Malpractice Actions
  • February 24, 2010 | Authors: Brian P. Cummings; Stephanie Haas
  • Law Firm: Troutman Sanders LLP - Chicago Office
  • Recently, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Section 2-1706.5 of Public Act 94-677, which placed caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice actions, violated the separation of powers clause in the Illinois Constitution and was therefore facially invalid.  Additionally, because Public Act 94-677 (the “Act”) contains an inseverability provision, the entire Act was held void and invalid in its entirety.
     
    Section 2-1706.5 provides in relevant part:

    (a) In any medical malpractice action or wrongful death action based on medical malpractice in which economic and non-economic damages may be awarded, the following standards shall apply:

    (1) In a case of an award against a hospital and its personnel or hospital affiliates, as defined in Section 10.8 of the Hospital Licensing Act, the total amount of non-economic damages shall not exceed $1,000,000 awarded to all plaintiffs in any civil action arising out of the care. 

    (2) In a case of an award against a physician and the physician’s corporate entity and personnel or health care professional, the total amount of non-economic damages shall not exceed $500,000 awarded to all plaintiffs in any civil action arising out of the care. 

    (3) In awarding damages in a medical malpractice case, the finder of fact shall render verdicts with a specific award of damages for economic loss, if any, and a specific award of damages for non-economic loss, if any. 

    Plaintiffs in this case, Abigaile Lebron (“Abigaile”) and her mother Frances Lebron (“Frances”), filed a medical malpractice and declaratory judgment action in the Circuit Court of Cook County against defendants Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, Roberto Levi-D’Ancona, M.D., and Florence Martinez, R.N.  Plaintiffs alleged that Frances was under the care of Dr. Levi-D’Ancona during her pregnancy and, due to certain acts and omissions by the defendants, Abigaile was born with numerous physical and cognitive injuries.  Plaintiffs contended that Abigaile’s injuries were so severe that she could not be adequately compensated due to the cap on non-economic damages under Section 2-1706.5 of the Act and sought a declaration that the Act was unconstitutional.  

    In a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, the Circuit Court determined that the statutory cap on non-economic damages in Section 2-1706.5 operates as a legislative remittitur in violation of the separation of powers clause and held that Section 2-1706.5 was unconstitutional both as applied to the plaintiffs and on its face.  Pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 302(a), defendants appealed directly to the Illinois Supreme Court. 

    At the outset, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court’s ruling that the statute was unconstitutional “as applied.”  As the Court explained, “the Circuit Court’s ruling that the statute is facially invalid negates any notion that the statute could be validly applied to these plaintiffs and the court’s ‘as applied’ ruling was unnecessary.” 

    The Supreme Court then turned to whether, pursuant to its decision in Best v. Taylor Machine Works, 179 Ill. 2d 367 (1997), the limitation on non-economic damages in Section 2-1706.5 violates the separation of powers clause.  In Best, the Supreme Court struck a broader limitation on non-economic damages in all actions on the grounds that the cap constituted impermissible special legislation.  In addition, although the defendants in this case argued that it was dicta, the Supreme Court also conducted an analysis of the separation of powers argument and determined that the cap on damages at issue in Best violated the separation of powers.  

    In this case, applying Best, the Supreme Court found that the damages cap unconstitutionally infringed on the judicial branch’s exercise of the doctrine of remittitur, a power granted to judges to correct excessive jury verdicts in appropriate circumstances, with a plaintiff’s consent.  The Court found that, “[u]nder Section 2-1706.5, the court is required to override the jury’s deliberative process and reduce any non-economic damages in excess of the statutory cap, irrespective of the particular facts and circumstances, and without the plaintiff’s consent.”  As such, the Supreme Court concluded that Section 2-1706.5 violates the separation of powers clause because it “unduly encroaches upon the fundamentally judicial prerogative of determining whether a jury’s assessment of damages is excessive within the meaning of the law.” 

    The Court’s opinion was delivered by Chief Justice Fitzgerald and joined by Justices Freeman, Kilbride, and Burke.  Justice Karmeier issued a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Garman.