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Lawsuit caps proposal could be headed to Illinois voters

By Chris Rizo | Mar 8, 2010

Dave Luechtefeld (R)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Legal Newsline)-Illinois voters could be asked in November to allow the General Assembly to adopt caps on medical malpractice awards if one Republican state senator has his way.

In response to the Illinois Supreme Court's decision last month overturning the state's cap on medical malpractice awards, state Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, has introduced a constitutional amendment that would prevent the state's high court from overturning future medical malpractice reform laws.

His proposal is outlined in Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 103.

If approved by lawmakers and later by statewide voters, the proposal would add a new section to Article 4 of the Illinois Constitution. The new section would find that lawmakers can seek to pass legislation that places limitations on liability for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering.

"The amendment will allow the General Assembly to construct much-needed medical malpractice legislation and assist in the prevention of future court decisions overturning the will of the people," Luechtefeld said in a statement.

Political observers say the measure could face tough opposition in a Democratic-controlled state Legislature given than many Democrats rake in large sums of campaign cash from trial lawyers, who are typically opposed to damage caps since they cut into their fees from payouts.

In 2005, it was only after widespread public support that Democrats adopted medical malpractice reforms.

In striking down the cap on damage awards, the high court's 4-2 ruling found that the 2005 law impeded juries' constitutional powers to award settlements in civil cases.

The law capped damages at $500,000 for doctors and $1 million for hospitals.

Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald delivered the majority opinion. He also said the $500,000 limit on noneconomic damages was arbitrary.

"Although agreeing with the defendants that noneconomic damages are difficult to assess, we determined that such difficulty was not alleviated by imposing an arbitrary damages limitation in all cases, without regard to the facts or circumstances," Fitzgerald wrote.

In the ruling, Fitzgerald was cold to the argument that similar caps are in place in other states, including California where medical malpractice damage caps have been in place -- and withstood challenges -- for more than three decades.

"That 'everybody is doing it,' is hardly a litmus test for the constitutionality of the statute," the ruling said. "We are also not persuaded by defendants' argument that the circuit court's judgment should be reversed because courts of other states, which have considered whether a limitation on noneconomic damages violates separation of powers, have rejected this argument."

The case heard by the Illinois Supreme Court centered on the severe disability of a young girl, Abigaile Lebron, who suffered a brain injury as she was being delivered by a doctor and nurse at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in the Chicago-area.

The original lawsuit was filed in Cook County, where in 2007 Judge Joan Larsen ruled that medical malpractice lawsuit caps are unconstitutional.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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