Monday, March 22, 2010

Georgia court throws out legislature-imposed ceiling on court-awarded damages

Word that the Supreme Court for the state of Georgia had thrown out as unconstitutional a state law limiting the amount of damages that could be awarded to victims of medical malpractice raises the possibility of the return of respect for civil rights for all U.S. residents. Monday's ruling found the law, which capped damages for pain and suffering at $350,000, violated the constitutional right to trial by jury because it limited the right of juries to determine the outcome of lawsuits. “The very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury,” Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote in the unanimous decision, according to the New York Times. The ruling upheld a lower court's decision that found the statute unconstitutional because it prevented Betty Nestlehutt, a Marietta, Ga., real estate agent disfigured by unsuccessful facelift surgery, from receiving the full $1.26 million in damages awarded by an Atlanta jury after she sued her doctor. The verdict included $900,000 in compensation for pain and suffering. “The bedrock of our democracy — our ability to self-govern at the ballot box and in the jury box — remains intact,” said Adam Malone, the lawyer who represented Nestlehutt. Of course not everyone agreed with the decision. Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery, the physicians group that performed the surgery, could not be reached for comment, the Times said. But a leading Georgia Republican, Nathan Deal, who resigned from his long-held seat in the U.S. Congress last week to run for governor, criticized the ruling as "a setback" for Republican-led tort reform efforts in the state, according to WGCL-TV, the CBS affiliate in Atlanta. "This ruling is a setback for the effort to reduce health care costs for Georgians," Deal said. "This is important to all Georgians. Tort reform helps reduce the cost of health care to individuals and stops doctors from leaving our state, as they did prior to its passage." Thirty states and the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have imposed caps on jury awards in malpractice cases, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Times said. Such caps have been struck down by courts in New Hampshire, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and Illinois since the 1980s.

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