Ga. SC strikes down tort reform measure

John O'Brien Mar. 22, 2010, 1:58pm


ATLANTA (Legal Newsline) - A week after upholding two provisions of a 2005 tort reform package, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously decided Monday that placing caps on damages is unconstitutional.

The decision overturns another part of the 2005 package, one that put a $350,000 limit on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. The opinion, authored by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, says the law violates the right to trial by a jury.

"(W)hile we have held that the Legislature generally has the authority to define, limit, and modify available legal remedies, the exercise of such authority simply cannot stand when the resulting legislation violates the constitutional right to jury trial," Hunstein wrote.

The portions of the 2005 package upheld last week allow a party that attempted to settle to shift its attorneys fees to the party that refused to accept the settlement offer and say emergency room doctors can only be sued for gross negligence, not standard negligence.

Monday's decision stemmed from the case of Betsy Nestlehutt, who said she was disfigured by a botched facelift at Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery.

A Fulton County jury awarded her $1.15 million in noneconomic damages, and the defendant moved to have that amount reduced. The trial judge, though, said the cap was unconstitutional.

"The very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury," Hunstein wrote.

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