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Utah Supreme Court Says Trial Court Acted Properly In Reducing Noneconomic Damages To Statutory Cap

 
 

HLD, v. 33, n. 1 (January 2005)

Utah Supreme Court Says Trial Court Acted Properly In Reducing Noneconomic Damages To Statutory Cap

In 1997, Athan Montgomery was born with severe brain damage due to malpractice by Dr. Gregory Drezga (defendant) and Athan's mother Heidi Judd (plaintiff) sued defendant on Athan's behalf. The jury awarded Athan $22,735.30 for expenditures on his behalf until that time; $1 million for his future care; and $1,250,000 in noneconomic damages also known as quality of life damages for his diminished capacity for the enjoyment of life. The trial court reduced the award of noneconomic damages to $250,000 based on the cap on medical malpractice awards under Utah Code Ann. � 78-14-7.1. Plaintiff appealed the reduction of the award.

The Supreme Court of Utah affirmed the trial court's judgment. Plaintiff argued the cap on noneconomic damages violated the Utah Constitution. Plaintiff's first constitutional argument was that the statutory cap violated Article 1, section 11, the open courts clause of the state constitution, which provides that the courts of the state shall be open to any citizens for any injury and there shall by a remedy for the injury. In this case, said the high court, plaintiff was not denied any remedy.

In Berry ex rel. Berry v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 717 P.2d 670 (Utah 1985) the court held that the open courts clause is satisfied if the law provides an injured person with a reasonable alternative remedy for the vindication of a constitutional interest, and if there is no alternative remedy then the abrogation of the remedy can be justified only if there is a clear social or economic evil to be eliminated and the elimination of the remedy is not arbitrary. The high court determined that the cap on noneconomic damages does not provide a substitute remedy that is substantially equal to the recovery it abrogated. The high court then turned to the second part of Berry to determine if the cap on noneconomic damages could be justified because it eliminates a social or economic evil. The legislative history of � 78-14-7.1 states that it was enacted to protect the public interest in maintaining the healthcare systems because numerous medical malpractice suits had substantially increased the cost of medical malpractice premiums, which increased the cost of healthcare. The high court concluded the Legislature did not overstep its bounds in determining that the medical malpractice crisis needed a remedy and a cap on noneconomic damages was a suitable remedy. The high court also concluded that the cap on noneconomic damages was not arbitrary or unreasonable. The cap is constitutionally reasonable because it is narrowly tailored only to apply to noneconomic damages, and the statutory cap on noneconomic damages was not unconstitutional, said the high court.

The high court then turned to plaintiff's second argument that the statutory cap violated the state constitution's uniform operation of law provision, because the cap only applies to victims of medical malpractice and not to victims of other torts and applies only to those victims of medical malpractice that are severely injured. The analysis of the issue of the open courts clause also applied to this issue, said the court, because the legislative purpose in limiting noneconomic damages was to ensure the availability of healthcare. The high court found the discrimination against the most severely injured victims of medical malpractice was reasonable because the Legislature was attempting to control the rapid rise of medical malpractice premiums and the classification met the heightened scrutiny test. The high court held the damages cap had a valid and legitimate legislative purpose and the damages cap was not unconstitutional under the uniform operation of law provision.

Plaintiff also challenged the cap on noneconomic damages as being unconstitutional under the due process clause of Article I, section 7. The high court applied the rational basis test because the right at issue was not fundamental. The Legislature had a legitimate interest in controlling healthcare costs, said the high court, and limiting the cap to noneconomic damages did not have any affect on the award of damages for actual expenses, loss of earning capacity, or other economic damages. The high court determined that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages was not unconstitutional under that section.

Plaintiff also argued the damages cap was unconstitutional under the right to a jury trial provision of the constitution at Article 1, section 1, because the damages cap prevents Athan from recovering the amount that was awarded by the jury. The high court noted that it is the jury's duty to determine the damages plaintiff sustained, but it is for the court to conform the jury's finding to the applicable law. Plaintiff received a fair trial and the trial court merely applied the controlling law when it reduced the noneconomic damages award, and the damages cap did not violate plaintiff's right to a fair trial.

Plaintiff's final argument was that the damages cap violated the state constitution's separation of powers provision by allowing the Legislature to determine judicial controversies by limiting damage awards. The Legislature has long been involved in jury trials, said the high court, from establishing standards of proof to providing the law on jury instructions. There can be no broad restrictions of the Legislature's role in the many aspects of jury trials, and the high court determined it was not inappropriate for the Legislature to be involved in capping damage awards. The high court held there was no violation of the separation of powers provision.

Accordingly, the high court affirmed the trial court's reduction of the noneconomic damages. A dissent said that the majority analyzed the plaintiff's claims under the wrong standard because the majority failed to apply the heightened scrutiny standard and therefore the outcome was wrong.

Judd v. Drezga, No. 20010646 (Utah Nov. 5, 2004). To read the case, go to http://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/supopin/judd110504.htm

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