On March 22, 2010, the Supreme Court of Georgia courageously and correctly held as unconstitutional the Georgia Legislature’s attempt to cap (limit) the amount of noneconomic damages that juries in Georgia could award in medical malpractice cases because the cap encroached on the constitutional right to a jury trial.
The Georgia law provided, in part: “In any verdict returned or judgment entered in a medical malpractice action, including an action for wrongful death, against one or more health care providers, the total amount recoverable by a claimant for noneconomic damages in such action shall be limited to an amount not to exceed $350,000.00, regardless of the number of defendant health care providers against whom the claim is asserted or the number of separate causes of action on which the claim is based.” OCGA Section 51-13-1.
The Georgia law defined “noneconomic damages” 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.”
The Georgia Constitution states that “[t]he right to trial by jury shall remain inviolate.” Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. I, Sec. I, Par. XI (a). The history of appellate decisions in Georgia established that the right to a jury trial applies to all cases to which the right to a jury trial existed at common law or by statute at the time of the adoption of the Georgia Constitution in 1798, which includes medical malpractice claims.
The Georgia Supreme Court noted that the determination of damages in tort cases (which include medical malpractice cases) rests “peculiarly within the province of the jury” and because the amount of damages sustained by the medical malpractice victim is ordinarily an issue of fact, it is the jury’s right to determine the amount of the damages. Therefore, “[t]he right to a jury trial includes the right to have a jury determine the amount of…damages, if any, awarded to the [plaintiff].”
The Supreme Court of Georgia held, “…we conclude that at the time of the adoption of our Constitution of 1798, there did exist the common law right to a jury trial for claims involving negligence of a health care provider, with an attendant right to the award of the full measure of damages, including noneconomic damages, as determined by the jury.” The Georgia Supreme Court further stated, “By requiring the court to reduce a noneconomic damages award determined by a jury that exceeds the statutory limit, OCGA Section 51-13-1 clearly nullifies the jury’s findings of fact regarding damages and thereby undermines the jury’s basic function.”
The Georgia Supreme Court concluded, “We are compelled to conclude that the caps infringe on a party’s constitutional right, as embodied in Art I, Sec. I, Par. XI (a), to a jury determination as to noneconomic damages…the very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury.”
The Supreme Court of Georgia acknowledged that while “the Legislature has authority to modify or abrogate the common law, we do not agree with the notion that this general authority empowers the Legislature to abrogate constitutional rights that may inhere in common law causes of action.”
If you or a loved one have been injured as a result of medical malpractice in Georgia or in any other state in the United States, visit our website to be connected with local medical malpractice lawyers who may be able to assist you with your medical malpractice claim. If you prefer, you may contact us toll free at 800-295-3959. Turn to us when you don’t know where to turn.