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Medical Malpractice Suits: Illinois High Court Hands Tort Reformers A Big Loss

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  • Medical Malpractice Suits: Illinois High Court Hands Tort Reformers A Big Loss

    It was a bad day for investors. It was a bad day for Bank of America. And it was another lousy day for Toyota.

    With all this misery going round, it might be easy to overlook that it was also a bad day for the tort-reform movement. The Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday found unconstitutional a state law capping non-economic damages in medical-malpractice cases.

    The ruling was, naturally, criticized by pro-business groups nationwide, which long have claimed that medical malpractice suits are a major contributor to rising healthcare costs.

    “This is very disappointing and frustrating,” said Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, a pro-business group. In Murnane’s opinion, the court Thursday ruled for “trial lawyers over doctors and patients.”

    Plaintiffs’ lawyers, meanwhile, hailed the ruling. “The Illinois Supreme Court has decided that the health care crisis can not be solved by further hurting the patients who are victims of medical errors,” the Illinois Trial Lawyers Associations said in a statement.

    Many state supreme courts have upheld the constitutionality of damage limits, but the high courts in Georgia, Kansas, and Missouri currently are weighing the issue. The Illinois case is “part of a national trend by the plaintiffs’ bar to challenge damage caps,” says Mark Behrens, a lawyer with Shook, Hardy & Bacon. Behrens says that the other courts opposed to caps may cite the decision as support, but “I doubt it will change many minds.”

    The Illinois suit was filed by Francis Lebron and her daughter, who was born in 2005 with cerebral palsy and other impairments. The Lebrons sued Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, Ill., along with a doctor and nurse involved in the delivery, alleging negligence.

    The Illinois Supreme Court weighed the constitutionality of a 2005 state law that caps pain-and-suffering damages at $500,000 or $1 million, depending on whether damages are awarded against a physician or hospital, respectively.

    That law, the court noted in its ruling, was passed to address the rising cost of medical liability insurance in the state. Still, the court held that the damage cap violates the Illinois constitution’s “separation of powers” doctrine by infringing on courts’ prerogative to determine appropriate damages in cases.

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