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Illinois Supreme Court Strikes Down Malpractice Award Limits

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, February 4, 2010

An Illinois law that caps medical malpractice noneconomic damages awards at $1 million for hospitals and $500,000 for physicians was struck down today by the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled that the five-year-old law violates the separation of powers provision in the state constitution.

The ruling stems from Lebron v. Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, a 2006 lawsuit filed by the family of a girl who suffered severe brain damage during her caesarian birth at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, IL.

The suit was the test care for several lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the 2005 law, and partially affirms a 2007 ruling in Cook County Circuit Court. Today's ruling marks the third time since 1976 that the Illinois high court has stuck down malpractice damages caps.

"The crux of our analysis is whether the statute unduly infringes upon the inherent power of the judiciary. Here, the legislature's attempt to limit … damages in medical malpractice actions runs afoul of the separation of powers clause," stated Chief Justice Thomas R. Fitzgerald, writing for the majority. The case was sent back to the circuit court for further proceedings.

The state's leading physician and hospital associations immediately criticized the ruling as a serious blow to containing healthcare costs.

Illinois Hospital Association President Maryjane A. Wurth said the state's high court had "rejected the clear will of the people of Illinois who called upon their legislators to enact this fair and sensible landmark legislation."

"The hospital community is deeply concerned that this decision will renew the malpractice lawsuit crisis and make it more difficult for Illinoisans to access or afford healthcare as liability costs for physicians and hospitals are driven to unsustainable levels," Wurth said in a media release. "Hospitals across the state will again face even greater challenges recruiting and retaining physicians, especially specialists, such as neurosurgeons and obstetricians, who were leaving Illinois during the height of the crisis."

"It's profoundly disappointing that the wishes of millions of Illinois citizens have been ignored," said Illinois State Medical Society President James L. Milam, MD, in a media release. "And it's highly ironic the decision comes at the very time national lawmakers are searching for ways to expand patient access to care and contain unnecessary costs. Medical liability reform is a proven solution on both these fronts."

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