Georgia Supreme Court Considers Constitutionality of Damages Cap in Medical Malpractice Cases

The Georgia Legislature imposed a cap on noneconomic damages in meritorious medical malpractice cases in 2005.   The cap is $350,000.   In a case tried in Fulton County several years ago, the jury’s verdict exceeded the cap, and the Georgia Supreme Court is now considering whether the cap is constitutional.

According to a press release from the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and re-printed on the Atlanta Injury Lawyer Blog

“Betty Nestlehutt was the face of her real estate business,” said Malone. “Her face was so horrifically disfigured that she was no longer able to even leave her house. Photographs of her disfigurement are even too gruesome for public distribution. The damage is permanent. Years later she has to wear layers of special makeup to try to give the appearance of normalcy.”

The damage award?  $115,000 for past and future medical expenses and $1.15 million in noneconomic damages, including $900,000 for her pain and suffering.   The damage cap would have the effect of reducing the award by over 50%, down  to $465,000.

The press release has an extended summary of the trial judge’s ruling that struck down the caps as unconstitutional on three different grounds.  Click on "Continue reading" to see the summary of Judge Diane Bressen’s order as set out in the press release.





Here it is:

A limit or cap on noneconomic damages, however, invades the right to a jury trial by usurping one of the fact-finding responsibilities of the jury. If the amount of noneconomic damages awarded by the jury exceeds the statutory cap, this Code section automatically and arbitrarily reduces the verdict, without consideration of the evidence, the record, or any other fact produced at trial and found by the jury. The limitations imposed by O.C.G.A. 51-13-1 render the right of the jury to assess damages meaningless… The cap so interferes with the determination of the jury that it renders the right of a jury trial wholly unavailable.

Additionally, Judge Bessen also found that the cap on damages violates the Separation of Powers Doctrine contained in the Georgia Constitution. Three other states’ supreme courts, with similar constitutional provisions, also have struck down caps on damages on this basis. The Georgia Constitution states that: “The legislative, judicial and executive powers shall forever remain separate and distinct, and no person discharging the duties of one, shall, at the same time, exercise the functions of either of the others.” One distinct function of the judicial branch is that judges have the exclusive right to award to a party a “remittitur” – or a new trial – if a judge finds that a verdict is either excessive or inadequate. Judge Bessen’s order declares the cap on damages statute to be a “legislative remittitur” and that the legislature has unconstitutionally invaded the exclusive role of the judiciary to find facts and control judgments.

“Equally important,” the judge writes, “it does so without the option of a new trial for the injured plaintiff. As such, it unduly encroaches upon the judiciary’s constitutional right and prerogative to determine whether a jury’s assessment of damages is either too excessive or too inadequate within the meaning of the law.”

The third violation of the Constitution Judge Bessen found was that a cap on damages violates the Equal Protection provisions of the Georgia Constitution which state: “No persons shall be denied the equal protection of the laws.” To examine this violation, Judge Bessen explored whether there was a “rational relationship” between the government’s purpose and its enacted statute which treats similar parties in very different, unequal ways.

The rational relationship test basically states that a statute may be valid as long as it has a rational relationship to a governmental purpose. In the case of SB 3, the government’s stated purpose was to “promote predictability and improvement in the provision of quality health care services and the resolution of healthcare claims…, assist in promoting the provision of healthcare liability insurance by insurance providers…, [and addressed concerns about] medical providers and facilities leaving the state and the cost of malpractice awards.” For a law to be valid, a rational relationship to those goals must be proven. Judge Bessen found that the cap on damages failed the rational relationship test completely.

In holding the cap on damages provision unconstitutional, Judge Bessen wrote:

After review, this Court finds that there is no rational relationship between statute and the expressed government interest. Most obviously, it is a complete contradiction to state that the overall quality of healthcare would be improved by shielding negligent healthcare providers from liability. In fact, as recognized by other courts, a cap on noneconomic damages actually diminishes tort liability for healthcare providers and diminishes the deterrent effect of tort law… There is absolutely no evidence that these objectives are achieved by imposing a financial burden on the most victimized of plaintiffs… Based on current statistics, limiting noneconomic damage caps is not rationally related to the state purpose of reducing medical malpractice insurance rates… it appears that this statute was enacted arbitrarily, based upon speculation and conjecture rather than empirical data.

Finally, Judge Bessen found that the cap on damages violates Equal Protection because it creates different classes of victims—those injured by healthcare providers and those injured by others and those who are catastrophically injured and those who are less severely injured. Judge Bessen penned, “The cap’s greatest impact falls on those who are most severely injured, and creates classes of fully compensated victims and those only partially compensated… Similarly, the noneconomic damages cap discriminates against low-income individuals who are unable to prove large economic damages but nonetheless may sustain large noneconomic damages.”

The Georgia Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case yesterday, the first time it has heard a challenge to the constitutionality of the damages caps.