Constitutionality of Statutory Damage Caps

The majority of U.S. states have imposed statutory caps on damages in medical malpractice actions. In response to these laws, many plaintiffs have challenged the constitutionality of the statutory caps. Plaintiffs argue that the damage caps usurp the jury's function and deprive plaintiffs of their day in court.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not decided whether statutory caps on damage awards in medical malpractice cases are constitutional. Many other courts have addressed the issue, with varying results. Claims that damage caps are unconstitutional are often based on arguments that the caps deprive plaintiffs of their day in court or that the caps deny plaintiffs their right to equal protection under the law.

In one case in which a mother of three young children suffered brain damage as the result of a negligent surgeon, the plaintiff claimed that the reduction of the jury verdict in accordance with Virginia's statutory damages cap deprived the plaintiff of her right to a jury trial and of her day in court. Reducing the verdict from nearly $3 million to $750,000 in accordance with Virginia law, the court ruled that the cap was constitutional. The court reasoned that the jury's function was not usurped in that the jury was able to determine the amount of damages. The court determined that once the jury ascertained the facts and assessed the damages, however, the plaintiff's constitutional right to be heard was satisfied. According to the court, applying the statutory cap after the fact did not disturb that right.

In another case, the plaintiff claimed that the statutory damages cap denied her the right of equal protection under the laws. The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids any state from denying a citizen equal protection of the laws. In the context of statutory damage caps, plaintiffs claim that the damages cap discriminates against medical malpractice plaintiffs as a class. Several courts have agreed with this argument and have struck down laws imposing damages caps on medical malpractice jury verdicts. The courts finding that the caps violate equal protection reason that the caps arbitrarily single out medical malpractice plaintiffs for the disparate treatment.

Until the U.S. Supreme Court decides to weigh in on the issue of the constitutionality of damage caps in medical malpractice cases, the issue will be decided on a state by state basis. While many people agree that jury verdicts in medical malpractice cases are fueling the health care crisis in America, it is unclear whether damage caps can solve the problem without invading on plaintiffs' constitutional rights.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.