Last summer, the Kansas Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case of Hilburn v. Enerpipe, Ltd., 442 P. 3d 509 (2019) which invalidated the Kansas statutory cap on non-economic damages in personal injury cases. Non-economic damages include damages for pain, suffering, disfigurement, mental and emotional distress that are not easily calculated in monetary terms. The Kansas statutory cap was $250,000.
Here in the Golden State, we have a similar statutory $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. The Hilburn case is a good lesson for California to follow.
The specific legal justification cited by the Kansas Supreme Court was that the cap on non-economic damages violated the right to trial by jury which is enshrined in the Kansas State Bill of Rights. The court held that the cap was an impermissible intrusion upon the jury’s right to determine fair and appropriate compensation owed for injuries suffered by victims of negligence.
That is a wise decision. One size does not fit all.
Californians have a similar right to trial by jury enshrined in Article 1, Section 16 of our Constitution. In addition, the right to trial by jury is established in the California Code of Civil Procedure, section 631. The language in section 631 is strong: “The right to a trial by jury as declared by Section 16 of Article I of the California Constitution shall be preserved to the parties inviolate.”
Like California, Kansas has laws that make individuals and businesses liable for their negligent behavior. Hilburn involved a semi-truck collision. The plaintiff, Diana Hilburn, was injured in late 2010 when the car in which she was riding was rear-ended by a semi-truck. Hilburn sued the truck driver and its owner, Enerpipe Ltd., for negligence. Hilburn claimed that the truck driver was negligent for violating various traffic laws and safe driving standards and that the truck driver’s actions caused the rear-end collision. Hilburn alleged the driver’s employer was the agent of his employer and was in the course and scope of his employment making Enerpipe a responsible party as a matter of law.
After trial, the jury awarded about $33,500 in economic damages, for largely medical expenses, and about $300,000 in non-economic damages for pain, suffering, anxiety, mental and emotional distress. Because of the statutory cap, the award for non-economic damages was reduced to $250,000 by the trial court. Hilburn successfully appealed and ultimately, the Kansas Supreme Court held that the cap on non-economic damages was unconstitutional.
Had Hilburn’s collision occurred in California, there would have been no reduction in the award for non-economic damages because the only limit on damages in California is in medical malpractice cases.
But the same logic with respect to the right to trial by jury applies to any law that takes from a jury the right to evaluate the damage that anyone has been caused to suffer.
In November an initiative is expected to be on the ballot in Californians to remove a $250,000 cap on damages for pain and suffering, which the medical and insurance industry will strongly oppose and no doubt do their best to shift the focus from injured people to lawyers who do their best to maximize recoveries for lifelong injuries.
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