Tort Reform Setback by Georgia Supreme Court

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Today President Barak Obama is scheduled to sign the new healthcare bill into law. Yesterday tort reform was setback by the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled the 2005 Tort Reform Act was unconstitutional and that the state legislature may not limit the amount of money that juries award to victims of medical malpractice.

The 2005 Tort Reform Act was part of a legislative package that capped jury awards at $350,000 for the “noneconomic damages” of malpractice victims. The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that the cap improperly removes a jury’s fundamental role to determine the damages in a civil case.

“Noneconomic damages” are commonly referred to as “damages for pain and suffering,” and are defined as damages for physical and emotional pain, discomfort, anxiety, hardship, distress, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, mental anguish, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of
society and companionship, loss of consortium, injury to reputation, and all other nonpecuniary losses of any kind or nature.

Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein wrote in the decision,“The very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury.”

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The American Medical Association (AMA) and other major medical societies consider such tort reform laws essential to reducing the number of frivolous malpractice suits and lowering the cost of medical liability insurance.

The current healthcare bill to be signed into law today by President Obama fails to address tort reform.

Georgia is not the first state to overturn legislative attempts at tort reform. In February, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned it’s state's cap on noneconomic damages, ruling that the law, which set a $500,000 limit in malpractice cases involving physicians, violated the separation-of-powers clause in that state's constitution. Like Georgia, Illinois feels the job of setting damages belong to trial courts, not the legislature.

Thirty states, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have legislative caps on jury awards in malpractice cases, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of these, the caps have been struck down by courts in New Hampshire, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Illinois, and now Georgia.

The Georgia Supreme Court’s decision arose from the case of a 71-year-old woman, Betty Nestlehutt, who was permanently disfigured after face-lift surgery.

A jury awarded her and her husband $1,265,000, comprised of
$115,000 for past and future medical expenses; $900,000 in noneconomic damages for Ms. Nestlehutt’s pain and suffering; and $250,000 for Mr. Nestlehutt’s loss of consortium. Under the cap, that would have been reduced to $115,000 for medical expenses and $350,000 for noneconomic damages.

Sources
Georgia Supreme Court Ruling
New York Times
Medscape

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