Illinois Supreme Court Strikes Down Tort Reform

Published May 31, 2016

In a repeat of a prior decision, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the state’s medical malpractice reform law, enacted in 2005. Ruling by a 4-2 majority on February 4, the Court found the legislature had exceeded its authority in attempting to limit awards for noneconomic damages.

The decision in the case, Lebron v. Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, was based on a conflict with the state Constitution, not the U.S. Constitution. That means an appeal to the federal courts is unlikely.


Reform Reined in Costs

Proponents of the law in question, including the American Medical Association (AMA), argued it was necessary to rein in out-of-control medical malpractice costs, said Dr. James Milam, president of the Illinois State Medical Society.

“The reform law was working as intended.  News accounts chronicled the return of high-risk medical specialists to one region that had a net loss of more than 100 physicians in the three years prior to the reform’s passage in our legislature,” Milam said. “The state’s largest liability insurance carrier reports that claims are down by almost a third since the law passed in 2005. Average liability insurance premiums have flattened or gone way down.

“Five years of progress have been reversed” by the court’s decision, Milam added. “We could very well return to an environment of courtroom standards that led physicians into early retirement, forced them to give up high-risk procedures, and in some cases caused them to choose another state in which to practice medicine.”

Trial Lawyers Pleased

The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA) argues tort reform is ineffective at reducing medical costs. In a statement to the press, ITLA President Peter Flowers said, “With this decision, we can now focus on the real issue: Providing meaningful insurance reform that will keep costs down for doctors and patients alike and ensure access to quality care for every resident in the state.”

However, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently reported tort reform would lower costs for health care both directly, by reducing medical malpractice costs, and indirectly, by reducing the use of health care services through changes in the practice patterns of providers.

“It is very unfortunate that an issue that has an impact on the quality of health care for Illinois citizens can be decided by the Supreme Court choosing between doctors and patients on one side, and trial lawyers  on the other, with the court siding once again with the trial lawyers,” said Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, in a press statement.

Not the First Reversal

This is not the first time the state’s highest court has reversed a major tort reform law. In 1995, Gov. Jim Edgar (R) signed into law legislation to cap awards for pain and suffering at $500,000, and punitive damages at three times the amount of economic damages awarded. The measure was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1997.

Illinois House Republican Leader Thomas Cross indicated he might advocate changes to the state’s Constitution. “I’m not suggesting tinkering with separation of powers. I’m simply saying if you can amend the Constitution to give us some ability and authority to cap then I think you have to look at that,” Cross told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

Reform backers may also turn to the ballot box, as Illinois Supreme Court Justices are elected rather than appointed. Justice Lloyd Karmeier was elected in 2004, in a campaign in which the candidates’ views on litigation reform attracted significant attention. The Lebron decision was made on a strict party line vote.

These decisions set Illinois apart from other jurisdictions where caps on damages have been upheld. Justices Karmeier and Rita B. Garman, both Republicans, noted in a joint dissent that the Court’s prior decision to strike down caps on damage awards “has not only been rejected by the federal courts, it has failed to carry the day in any reported decision in any other state in the United States since it was filed 12 years ago.” 

Brian Faughnan ([email protected]), a former staffer on Capitol Hill, writes from Virginia.

Internet Sources:

Congressional Budget Office: Analysis of the Effects of Proposals to Limit Costs Related to Medical Malpractice: