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Kansas Supreme Court upholds damages cap

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In a ruling with immense implications for the state, and in particular for the entire health care community, the Kansas Supreme Court today removed any serious debate or lingering doubts about whether the state's $250,000 cap on non-economic damages was constitutionally sound in medical malpractice cases.

By a 5-2 margin the state's highest court issued a definitive opinion upholding a tort reform law that has been on the statute books since 1988. The decision is the culmination of efforts by Kansas physicians and hospitals over the years to support a reasonable and effective limit on non-economic damages. It also underscores the importance of the partnership among the Kansas Medical Society, the Kansas Hospital Association and KaMMCO when it comes to state-related advocacy efforts.

In essence the Court said that the legislature's decision to enact the cap 24 years ago was rationally related to a valid legislative purpose and as such did not violate the state's constitutional protections. The Court observed that the intent of the cap was to ensure quality health care availability in Kansas and to promote affordable, available malpractice insurance for health care providers. The court recognized these objectives as legitimate state interests that promote the general welfare.

A key element in the Court's analysis turned on fact that physicians, hospitals, and other health care providers are required by law to carry liability insurance and participate in the Health Care Stabilization Fund, the combination of which provides a guaranteed source of recovery for patients injured through a provider's negligence. This creates a "quid pro quo" wherein individuals give up the right to recover unlimited pain and suffering damages in return for an assured source of recovery.

This case, known as Miller v. Johnson, took an unusual path through the judicial process. During the three and one-half years it was at the Supreme Court, one justice retired due to failing health and was replaced by a new justice, another recused himself from the case and was replaced by an assigned justice for this case only and oral arguments were heard twice, which is quite rare. The majority opinion was written by Justice Biles, and he was joined by Justices Nuss, Knudson, Luckert and Moritz. Justices Beier and Johnson dissented. The Court's opinion, 109 pages in all, can be viewed here.

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