The high court ruled last week that a 2010 $250,000 cap (now $325,000 and moving to $350,000 on July 1, 2022) on noneconomic damages is not constitutional. It essentially limits juries in personal injury cases from determining the amount of compensation an injured party can receive for lifestyle changes and mental and physical damages as a result of someone’s negligence or other misdeed.
Like many court cases, this one is complicated. Like that tough piece of meat that just keeps getting bigger the more you chew it.
A woman injured when a corporation’s semi-truck plowed into the back of her car sued the firm, it took responsibility for its driver’s action, and a Sedgwick County jury determined that the plaintiff suffered the easily calculated $33,490.86 in medical expenses. You just add up the bills.
But for the noneconomic damages? The jury agreed that the injured woman suffered $301,509.14 in noneconomic damages as a result of the wreck. Now, how did a jury come up with that number? No telling. Juries meet in secret; they discuss and debate and come up with a figure.
That figure turned out to be $51,509.14 more than the sum of the economic damages and the noneconomic damages, and the judge accepted the defendant’s total damage payment with the $250,000 cap and called it a day.
And after all that complexity, the injured woman appealed the ruling and the Supreme Court decided that the Legislature doesn’t have the right to essentially toss out a jury’s decision in favor of a state statute. That simple.
But the decision instantly opens that legislative issue next session. If there’s a cap on noneconomic damages, that limits the payments to a calculable figure, and insurance companies love calculable caps. It means that no matter the circumstance, they have a cap on payouts for noneconomic damages they pay on behalf of their policyholders. It holds down that payment, meaning the insurers can calculate just what they need in the way of premiums to cover their policyholder’s losses and make a profit.
And it holds down the cost of policies, which means they can sell more of them. The public benefit? Lower insurance prices mean fewer Kansans will violate state law and drive without insurance. That protects, or at least makes recovery possible for, everyone else on the road. Nobody wants to be hit by a driver with no insurance, and your insurer would rather recoup the money it pays you from another company.
So, the fight next session? What’s possible in the way of a cap to hold down insurance rates, and what’s possible in the way of respecting the constitutional power of juries to decide cases.
Insurers will want a cap reassembled, plaintiffs and their attorneys will want no cap, and the outcome will reach across the state. A giant noneconomic damages verdict and businesses pay higher insurance rates, or their insurers are responsible for just the policy limits and the policyholder pays the overage.
Everything changes. If jury verdicts are limited, there goes their constitutionally delegated power. Might not need a full dozen anymore. If the cap is somehow reworked to become constitutional, again, there goes the delegation of justice to juries.
Oh, and we imagine that lobbyists for insurance companies will be busy next session. And…we imagine that there will be some legislators gaining weight as they are taken to dinner by lobbyists to talk over the issue…
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