In its opinion filed on August 11, 2015, the Supreme Court of the State of Utah (“Utah Supreme Court”) held that the noneconomic damages cap in section 78B-3-410 of the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act (“Malpractice Act”) is not constitutionally permissible as applied to wrongful death cases.
Article XVI, Section 5 Of The Utah Constitution
Article XVI, section 5 of the Utah Constitution provides, “The right of action to recover damages for injuries resulting in death, shall never be abrogated, and the amount recoverable shall not be subject to any statutory limitation, except in cases where compensation for injuries resulting in death is provided for by law.”
Utah’s Medical Malpractice Damages Cap
The damages cap in section 78B-3-410 of the Malpractice Act provides, “In a malpractice action against a health care provider, an injured plaintiff may recover noneconomic losses to compensate for pain, suffering, and inconvenience. The amount of damages awarded for noneconomic loss may not exceed . . . $450,000.”
Utah’s Wrongful Death Statute
The Utah wrongful death statute provides, “When the death of a person not being a minor is caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another, his heirs or personal representatives may maintain an action for damages against the person causing the death, or if such person be employed by another person who is responsible for his conduct, then also against such other person. In every action under this and the preceding section, such damages may be given as under all circumstances of the case.”
The first Utah appellate case to address Utah’s wrongful death statute was in 1890, and referenced “the rule almost uniformly laid down by the courts of England and the United States to the effect that only the pecuniary loss sustained can be compensated for, and that no compensation can be given for the mental anguish or suffering of the heirs or next of kin of the deceased.”
The Utah Supreme Court stated that article XVI, section 5 of the Utah Constitution protects recovery of economic damages—compensation for the loss of the reasonably anticipated net financial productivity of the deceased and the costs occasioned by the death, and it also protects recovery of certain noneconomic damages designed to compensate for the loss of the assistance, association, care, comfort, companionship, nurture, pleasure, protection, society, and support of the deceased. Because such damages were available at the time Utah’s constitution was adopted, they “shall not be subject to any statutory limitation.” But those damages for the mental anguish and suffering of survivors, which were not available at the time of statehood, may be limited by the Legislature.
The Utah Supreme Court noted that article XVI, section 5 of the Utah Constitution excepts from constitutional protection “cases where compensation for injuries resulting in death is provided for by law.” The Utah Supreme Court stated that the compensation exception to article XVI, section 5 does not immunize the damages cap of the Malpractice Act from constitutional challenge: the constitutional provision differentiates between “damages” and “compensation” – the word damage defines the constitutional protection; the word compensation defines the scope of the exception. Accordingly, the two terms must mean something different otherwise the exception would swallow the rule. The compensation exception was not part of the original constitution, but was added through an amendment made in 1921, to remedy the inconsistency between the unamended constitutional provision and the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1917. Thus, the term compensation, as used in amended section 5, carries the same meaning that it had in the Workmen’s Compensation Act, namely “any payment required by the act to be made to a workman or to his dependents, or for their benefit, or into the state treasury for the special purposes of the compensation act.”
The Utah Supreme Court stated that compensation is distinguished from damages because damages require fault. Because any damages awardable within the cap are based upon a medical provider’s fault, the fact of their award ability does not make the constitutional exception available. Accordingly, the Utah Supreme Court held that the compensation exception to article XVI, section 5 of the Utah Constitution does not apply in cases implicating the damages cap of the Malpractice Act.
The Utah Supreme Court stated that had the Utah Legislature intended to abrogate the constitutional protection for wrongful-death damages in the context of medical malpractice, it could have sought an exception to article XVI, section 5 of the Utah Constitution as it did to accommodate the workers’ compensation scheme some sixty years earlier. But since the Legislature did not do so, limiting the application of the cap to cases outside the wrongful-death context allows the broadest operation of the legislative scheme.
The Utah Supreme Court stated that its holding is limited to those damages that are protected by article XVI, section 5 of the Utah Constitution – it has no application in those cases where the alleged medical malpractice does not result in death. The Utah Supreme Court held that the damages cap in section 78B-3-410 of the Malpractice Act is unconstitutional as applied to cases of wrongful death under article XVI, section 5 of the Utah Constitution.
Source Smith v. The United States Of America, No. 20131030, 2015 UT 68.
If you or a loved one suffered serious injury (or worse) as a result of medical treatment in Utah or in another U.S. state, your injuries may be due to medical negligence and you should promptly find a local medical malpractice lawyer in Utah or in your U.S. state who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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