When Cook County Circuit Judge Diane Joan Larsen declared a state law establishing caps on damages in medical malpractice cases unconstitutional, her much anticipated ruling prompted an outpouring of criticism as well as praise.
Public Act 94-677, which was signed into law in August 2005 after a contentious legislative battle, violates the separation of powers clause of the Illinois Constitution, Larsen wrote.
The case is now headed to the Illinois Supreme Court where arguments will be made next summer.
Groups which fought the hardest for the bill's passage, the Illinois State Medical Society, Illinois Hospital Association and Illinois Civil Justice League (ICJL) were quick to defend caps.
"This law was thoroughly debated and considered by the Illinois General Assembly prior to its passage," said ICJL President Ed Murnane. "It follows many years of crisis in Illinois, during which access to healthcare for Illinois citizens has been threatened.
"It is a common sense, reasonable law that should be upheld, and we are confident that the Supreme Court will uphold a very necessary reform to preserve our health care system."
But the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association expressed confidence that the high court, which "has twice before in the 1976 Wright case and the 1997 Best case ruled that caps on damages are unconstitutional," will again shoot down the law.
Excerpts of Larsen's ruling follow:
"As instructed by the Illinois Supreme Court in Best, the role of this court in considering the constitutionality of the Act 'is not to judge the prudence of the General Assembly's decision that reform of the civil justice system is needed.'
"The Court in Best emphasized that 'we should not and need not balance the advantages and disadvantages of reform.'
"Thus, the court does not engage in such balancing: rather the court 'must determine the meaning and effect of the Illinois Constitution in light of the challenges made to the legislation in issue.
"The Illinois Supreme Court in Best stated that 'we hold that the compensatory damages cap...violates the constitutional prohibition against special legislation and also violates the separation of powers clause.
"It is the judgment of this court that the holding of the Illinois Supreme Court -- that a compensatory damage cap applicable in all cases violates separation of powers -- is no less applicable to the present case simply because the cap at issue applies only in medical malpractice cases.
"The Supreme Court has determined that a cap on non-economic damages applicable in all cases operates as a legislative remittitur which 'disregards the jury's careful deliberative process in determining damages that will fairly compensate injured plaintiffs who have proven their causes of action.'
"In finding that the cap on non-economic damages '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 expressly noted that 'the cap on damages is mandatory and operates wholly apart from the specific circumstances of a particular plaintiff's non-economic injuries.'
"There is no principled reason set forth that a cap on non-economic damages applicable only in medical malpractice cases should not be considered a legislative remittitur given the Supreme Court's holding in Best.
"'[O]nce the Supreme Court has declared the law on any point, we may not refuse to follow it, no matter what our personal views might be, because the supreme court alone has the power to overrule or modify its decisions.'"