Oregon Supreme Court Holds $500,000 Cap On Noneconomic Damages Is Unconstitutional

In its opinion filed on July 9, 2020, the Supreme Court of the State of Oregon (“Oregon Supreme Court”) held: “ORS 31.710(1), as a limit on the noneconomic damages that a court can award to a plaintiff, violates Article I, section 10.”

The Underlying Facts

The plaintiff had the right-of-way and was walking across a crosswalk in downtown Portland, Oregon when the defendant’s garbage truck struck him. By the time the truck stopped, the plaintiff’s leg was under the truck and attached to his body by a one-inch piece of skin. The plaintiff was fully conscious and alert, and he experienced tremendous pain. The plaintiff had surgery to amputate his leg just above the knee. The plaintiff has undergone extensive rehabilitation and therapy, but the injuries that the plaintiff suffered will affect him for the rest of his life.

As a result of a personal injury lawsuit filed by the plaintiff, a jury awarded economic damages of $3,021,922 and noneconomic damages of $10,500,000. The defendant subsequently moved to reduce the plaintiff’s noneconomic damages award to $500,000, in accordance with the cap on noneconomic damages provided in ORS 31.710(1). The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

ORS 31.710(1)

ORS 31.710(1) provides: “Except for claims subject to ORS 30.260 to 30.300 [the Oregon Tort Claims Act] and ORS chapter 656 [workers compensation claims], in any civil action seeking damages arising out of bodily injury, including emotional injury or distress, death or property damages 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.”

ORS 31.710(4) provides that the jury shall not be advised of that limitation on damages. Thus, the damages cap is a cap on the amount that a trial court may award a plaintiff after a jury verdict in the plaintiff’s favor for claims other than claims against public bodies or their employees. For claims against private entities and individuals, other than claims that are “subject to *** chapter 656,” ORS 31.710(1) imposes a cap of $500,000 on all noneconomic damage awards.

Oregon Supreme Court Opinion

The Oregon Supreme Court stated, “Under the common law, all persons owe a duty of reasonable care and persons who are injured as a result of breach of that duty have a right to bring a claim for their injuries … In adopting ORS 31.710(1), the legislature did not alter the common-law duty of reasonable care and it did not alter a plaintiff’s common-law right to bring a claim for breach of that duty. The legislature also did not bar a grievously injured plaintiff from seeking and having a jury award a sum that the jury determines is necessary to compensate the plaintiff for the right that was injured, including both economic and noneconomic damages … Instead, when the legislature enacted ORS 31.710(1), it required a trial court to override the jury’s verdict and enter judgment for a specified amount that is not tied to the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries. When it did so, the legislature did not provide injured persons with a quid pro quo … something they otherwise would not have had. Unlike the Oregon Tort Claims Act, which gives injured persons the ability to bring a claim against a solvent defendant that otherwise would have been immune from suit, … ORS 31.710(1) does not expressly confer a benefit on injured persons. The benefits that ORS 31.710(1) is intended to confer are benefits that are intended to inure to society in general as opposed to injured persons in particular.”

“The failure to provide a quid pro quo to counterbalance a plaintiff’s right to a remedy under Article I, section 10, strikes a real blow to the defense of ORS 31.710(1). We need not decide today, however, whether that blow is fatal. In addition to the legislature’s failure to provide a quid pro quo, it also is evident that the legislature did not act, as the legislature did when it adopted the Oregon Tort Claims Act, to advance the state’s interest in sovereign immunity or any other interest with constitutional underpinnings. And the legislative history does not indicate that, when the legislature capped plaintiffs’ noneconomic damages at $500,000, it did so, again as the legislature did when it adopted the Oregon Tort Claims Act, with the goal of capping noneconomic damages at a sum capable of restoring the right that had been injured in many, if not all, instances, and would remain capable of doing so over time.”

The Oregon Supreme Court held: “In enacting the damages cap in ORS 31.710(1), the legislature left defendants’ common-law duty of care intact, but deprived injured plaintiffs of the right to recover damages assessed for breach of that duty. Defendant does not convince us that the reasons for that limitation are sufficient to counterbalance that loss, and we need not rely solely on the lack of a quid pro quo to reach our decision. We conclude that application of ORS 31.710(1), as a limit on the noneconomic damages that a court can award to a plaintiff, violates Article I, section 10.”

Source Busch v. McInnis Waste Systems, Inc., SC S066098.

If you or a loved one were injured due to medical malpractice in Oregon or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find an Oregon medical malpractice lawyer, or a medical malpractice lawyer in your state, who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you or your loved one in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 14th, 2020 at 5:22 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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