The Court of Appeals of the State of Oregon (“Oregon Appellate Court”) ruled in its opinion filed on November 1, 2017 that where there is a bare reduction in the plaintiff’s noneconomic damages without any identifiable statutory quid pro quo or constitutional principle that the cap on noneconomic damages takes into consideration, the application of the cap on noneconomic damages stated in ORS 31.710(1) to the plaintiff’s jury award violates the remedy clause in Article I, section 10.
In the case the Oregon Appellate Court was deciding, the plaintiff was grievously injured while cleaning the bale-cutting machine manufactured by the defendant: the plaintiff was crushed by a pinch point created by a hydraulic ram moving against the exterior framework of the machine. As a result, the plaintiff was “essentially cut in half at the base of his spine,” leaving him permanently paraplegic.
ORS 31.710(1) provides: “Except for claims subject to ORS 30.260 to 30.300 and ORS chapter 656, in any civil action seeking damages arising out of bodily injury, including emotional injury or distress, death or property damage of any one person including claims for loss of care, comfort, companionship and society and loss of consortium, the amount awarded for noneconomic damages shall not exceed $500,000.”
The jury in the present case determined that the plaintiff was entitled to $2,231,817 in economic damages and $8,100,000 in noneconomic damages but found the plaintiff 40% at fault for his injuries. As a result, the plaintiff’s jury award was reduced to 60%, for a total of $6,199,090 ($1,339,090 in economic damages and $4,860,000 in noneconomic damages). Thus, if the $500,000 cap on noneconomic damages as set forth in ORS 31.710(1) was applied, the plaintiff would receive only $1,839,090 out of the $6,199,090 that he would receive without the cap.
The Oregon Appellate Court stated that a statute, such as ORS 31.710, that only adjusts benefits in favor of the insurance industry and tortfeasor defendants, while limiting the benefits extended to all plaintiffs, without some commensurate, identifiable benefit to plaintiffs, is not a quid pro quo, as that term is understood in the context of the remedy clause of Article I, section 10 (a quid pro quo occurs when both sides obtain a real benefit conferred in the statutory scheme itself).
The Oregon Appellate Court stated that when a statute limits a remedy for a recognized duty, and does not deny a remedy completely, the statute is invalid under the remedy clause only if the remedy provided is not “substantial.” Whether a remedy is “substantial” is a question that can only be answered on a case-by-case basis, because a capped remedy could provide complete relief for many claimants.
With regard to whether the statutorily substituted remedy under ORS 31.710(1) is “substantial” as required by Article I, section 10, the Oregon Appellate Court stated that the legislative remedy need not restore all the damages that the plaintiff sustained to pass constitutional muster, but a remedy that is only a paltry fraction of the damages that the plaintiff sustained will unlikely be sufficient. To determine if Article I, section 10 is satisfied, the court must consider the extent to which the legislature has departed from the common-law model measured against its reasons for doing so.
The Oregon Appellate Court stated that under the common-law model, the plaintiff in this case would have been entitled to recover his noneconomic damages, not subject to any cap. The Oregon Appellate Court held that the legislature’s reason for enacting the noneconomic damages cap, which was not concerned with injured claimants, cannot bear the weight of the dramatic reduction in noneconomic damages that the statute requires for the most grievously injured plaintiffs.
The Oregon Appellate Court held that ORS 31.710(1) would leave the plaintiff in this case with a remedy that is only a “paltry fraction” of the damages that he sustained and would otherwise recover. The bare reduction in the plaintiff’s noneconomic damages without any identifiable statutory quid pro quo or constitutional principle that the cap takes into consideration results in the conclusion that the application of ORS 31.710(1) to the plaintiff’s jury award violates the remedy clause in Article I, section 10.
Source Vasquez v. Double Press Mfg., Inc., 288 Or App 503 (2017)
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