By DAN MARGOLIES
A Kansas law that caps jury awards for noneconomic damages — things like pain and suffering — violates the right to a trial by jury, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled on Friday.
“This is huge,” said attorney Thomas M. Warner Jr., who represented Diana K. Hilburn, the plaintiff in the case. “We’ve had these caps on the books since 1986 in Kansas. Basically, the politicians decided that they would be in a better position to determine the amount of damages for noneconomic damages than juries. And so this decision allows juries to make that decision again.”
Kansas is one of many states that have limited noneconomic damages, particularly in medical malpractice cases, out of concern that runaway jury awards cause skyrocketing insurance premiums and hurts the economy.
The cap has been revised upward over the years and now stands at $325,000. It was scheduled to increase to $350,000 in 2022.
Hilburn was injured in 2010 when the car she was riding in was rear-ended by a semi-trailer truck. Hilburn sued the truck’s owner, Enerpipe Ltd., for negligence. A jury awarded her $335,000, including $301,509.14 for noneconomic losses.
Because Kansas at the time capped noneconomic damages at $250,000, the total award was reduced to $283,490.86. Hilburn appealed and the Kansas Court of Appeals rejected her argument that the cap was unconstitutional.
In reversing that decision, the Kansas Supreme Court held that the cap violates the Kansas Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which states that the “right of trial by jury shall be inviolate.”
The court rejected its own reasoning in a 2012 medical malpractice case that the right to a jury trial could be modified if certain conditions were met.
The Kansas Court of Appeals found those conditions were met in Hilburn’s case, but the Supreme Court said it should never have applied that test to a fundamental constitutional right.
“ … we simply cannot square a right specially designated by the people as ‘inviolate’ with the practical effect of the damages cap: substituting juries’ factual determinations of actual damages with an across-the-board legislative determination of the maximum conceivable amount of actual damages,” Justice Carol Beier wrote for the court.
Justice Marla Luckert dissented, saying she would have followed the 2012 malpractice case and upheld the cap.
The case drew widespread interest. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Kansas Association of Defense Counsel filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the court to uphold the damage cap. The Kansas Trial Lawyers Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging it to find the cap unconstitutional.
“This is a game-changer,” said David Morantz, who wrote the trial lawyers’ brief. “It’s a very big ruling.”
“This has been an issue that has troubled and really hurt personal injury victims for years,” he said. “It’s been an issue of the Legislature trying to substitute its judgment for that of Kansas juries and preventing Kansas juries from deciding the full measure of personal injury victims’ damages.”
Judges will still retain the ability to rein in runaway jury verdicts, under a legal doctrine known as remittitur.
“But today’s opinion does a good job of putting these issues and questions back in juries’ hands and keeping the legislature out of it,” Morantz said.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor in conjunction with the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.