NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 3, 2008

Much good has resulted since Illinois lawmakers joined 35 other states and placed limits on medical damage awards three years ago.  Doctors no longer flee the state in droves, and health care is more accessible.  But if the trial lawyers prevail in a case heard by the Illinois Supreme Court recently, those trends could be reversed, says the Wall Street Journal.

  • In 2005 the state General Assembly passed a law that capped medical malpractice jury awards for pain and suffering at $500,000 against doctors and $1 million against hospitals.
  • At the time, the state's medical litigation climate was one of the nation's worst; jury awards soared.
  • Between 1998 and 2003, damage awards for pain and suffering in Cook County (Chicago) grew by 247 percent.

Due to the rising cost or unavailability of liability insurance, some doctors quit the state, says the Journal:

  • An Illinois obstetrician could save $75,000 to $100,000 per year on liability insurance by moving to nearby Wisconsin, Indiana or Missouri.
  • Physicians in neurosurgery, orthopedics and anesthesiology were no longer performing high-risk procedures.

In response, Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich signed the Medical Malpractice Reform Act.  The new law imposed caps on damages and bolstered the market for malpractice insurers:

  • Within a year, four companies had either entered the Illinois market for the first time or expanded market share.
  • Insurance premiums fell by up to 30 percent for some physicians, and hospitals reported having an easier time finding doctors.

No victory in politics is final, however, and plaintiffs lawyers challenged the law almost immediately.  A trial court in Cook County invalidated the caps last year, and the case was just heard before the Illinois Supreme Court.  The trial bar argued that a damages cap violates separation-of-powers principles because it strips judges of the ability to police excessive verdicts.  But legislatures in Illinois have always been able to alter common-law remedies, whether in the form of changing statutes of limitations or burdens of proof, says the Journal.

Source: Editorial, "Messing With Malpractice Reform; Tort lawyers in Illinois try an end run around the voters," Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2008.

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