“Frivolous lawsuit” is a term much beloved by potential defendants, the insurance industry, and many other parties standing to gain financially if victims of personal injury and medical malpractice claims are denied just compensation. We often see proposed legislation aimed at curbing “frivolous” lawsuits via a wide variety of mechanisms. One such mechanism is the capping of damages which may be available in certain types of lawsuits.
The purported rationale behind such caps in medical malpractice claims is that they will keep the overall number of lawsuits down, resulting in less of a burden on the insurance and healthcare industries as well as the court system. This was the sentiment of the Kansas State Legislature when they passed a cap on non-economic damages in 1986. The state thought such a measure could increase the ability to better recruit and retain doctors if they knew their legal liability was limited. Two years later, the cap (initially set at $250,000) was expanded to all personal injury cases. The cap remained at $250,000 for decades, even after inflation cut the buying power of the sum by more than half.
Economic damages refer to easily quantifiable losses. For example, medical bills would be something a plaintiff may ask for as part of a request for economic damages — the figure would be easily obtained by referring to documentation. Non-economic damages, on the other hand, refer to losses that are not so quantifiable; for example, something like pain and suffering.
These types of damages were at issue in the case of Diana Hilburn, a passenger in a car rear-ended by a semi-truck. A Kansas jury had awarded Ms. Hilburn about $34,000 for medical costs and about $301,500 in noneconomic damages. A judge reduced the total judgment from $335,000 to about $284,000 because of the noneconomic damages cap. Lawyers representing the plaintiff challenged the reduction to her award and the case reached the Kansas Supreme Court, where the Justices held that the cap on non-economic damages violates the right to a jury trial under the state constitution’s Bill of Rights.
Many hope this change could help victims of medical malpractice get the justice they deserve. Speaking to the Kansas City Star, one advocate explained how in the past, Kansas lawyers often wouldn’t even take on medical malpractice claims without extensive economic damages as the cost of going to trial might exceed the amount which could be won. The Kansas Supreme Court decision, however, has the ability to change this trend, with advocates referring to the potential of “a new landscape” in medical malpractice.
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