Damages Cap on Non-Economic Damages Unconstitutional

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Hilburn v. Enerpipe – Kansas Supreme Court Rules Damages Cap on Non-Economic Damages is Unconstitutional

On June 14, 2019, the Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling that will change the landscape of personal injury matters in the state of Kansas. In a reversal of the decision by the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that the statutory damages cap on non-economic damages was unconstitutional because it violated a plaintiff’s right to a jury trial by invading the jury’s ability to make a determination about the dollar amount necessary to remedy the plaintiff’s injury. In other words, prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, juries were unable to determine the amount of a person’s damages because the legislature had arbitrarily capped a person’s damages. The Supreme Court made clear that jurors should decide how much a person has been damaged, not the legislature (or the insurance industry and Chamber of Commerce).

In the case in question, Hilburn v. Enerpipe, Diana Hilburn sustained injuries when she was rear-ended by a commercial truck owned by Enerpipe. Ms. Hilburn sued Enerpipe for negligence and was awarded economic damages in the amount of $33,490.86 for her medical expenses and $301,509.14 in non-economic damages for her pain and suffering. The trial judge reduced the non-economic damages award to $250,000 – the cap in effect at the time pursuant to Kan. Stat. Ann. 60-19a02.

Ms. Hilburn appealed the judge’s ruling reducing the award for non-economic damages on the grounds that the statutory cap was unconstitutional. The Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling on damages but the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ms. Hilburn, holding that the statute placing a cap on non-economic damages in fact violated Section 5 of the Kansas State Bill of Rights. Justice Beier, whose opinion was supported by two other justices, wrote that a cap on economic damages “substitutes the Legislature’s nonspecific judgment for the jury’s specific judgment. The people deprived the Legislature of that power when they made the right to trial by jury inviolate.”

Supreme Court’s Ruling

By ruling in this way, the Supreme Court overturned its own holding in a prior case, Miller v. Johnson, in which a similar constitutional challenge to the non-economic damages cap was raised in the context of a medical malpractice case. In Miller, the court examined both Sections 5 and 18 of the Kansas Bill of Rights. Section 18 states that “all persons, for injuries suffered in person, reputation or property, shall have remedy by due course of law, and justice administered without delay.” The Court in Miller applied a “quid pro quo” due process test for establishing whether the statutory cap was a constitutional violation. The Court’s test said that a jury’s decision on damages could be changed by a statute if the court decided that it was “reasonably necessary” and in the interest of the public for the benefit of the public welfare and if the court believed that the legislature “substituted an adequate statutory remedy.” The court in Miller held that the limitation on Section 5 of the Constitution was allowable if it survived this quid pro quo test. Here in Hilburn, the Court held that the right to receive a jury awarded amount of damages as provided for in Section 5 was not altered by Section 18 and the quid pro quo test should not be applied in an analysis of statutory non-economic damages. The Hilburn Court stated that the statute limiting non-economic damages leans on a fundamental interest protected by Section 5 and therefore is subject to judicial review. Upon its review the Court found that damages are a question of fact and should be decided by a jury.

Impact of Hilburn v. Enerpipe

The Hilburn holding will have a profound impact on personal injury litigation in the state of Kansas, particularly in cases where there is a potential for large non-economic damage awards. Supporters of the decision feel that placing the right to make a determination on the amount of damages in the hands of juries is the appropriate conclusion. That juries with access to the specific facts of a case should be deciding damages rather than politicians imposing their will through a blanket legislative cap.

Historically, the cap was imposed in 1986 by the Kansas legislature over fears about rising liability insurance costs and proponents in favor of the cap argue that its removal will drive up the costs of medical malpractice insurance and in turn, healthcare costs will rise for everyone. In fact, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce is calling upon the legislature not to let the ruling stand without a challenge. While we may not have heard the last on this topic from lawmakers, it is undoubtedly a win for injured parties who were previously unable to be “made whole” because of the arbitrary non-economic damages cap that was in place.

If you have been injured in Kansas or Missouri because of someone else’s negligence, call Aaron House at 816-875-4260 for a free consultation to discuss your personal injury case.

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