The Kansas Medical Society sounded an alarm Monday about return to rapid inflation in liability costs for health professionals after the Kansas Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a state law capping pain and suffering awards by juries in personal injury cases.
The statewide association advocating for physicians in every specialty has championed Kansas law designed to create a predictable insurance environment for health workers, said Jon Rosell, executive director of the Kansas Medical Society. Restrictions on non-economic damages helped prevent runaway juries calculating the cost of emotional anguish or loss of enjoyment in activities after an injury, he said.
"Elimination of the caps on pain and suffering awards will soon translate into increased insurance premiums for physicians, hospitals and health care professionals, which will ultimately be passed on to patients," Rosell said.
A Supreme Court majority decided Friday limitations on noneconomic damages written into state law violated a plaintiff's constitutional right to have compensation issues decided by a jury. Under current Kansas law, an individual who convinced a jury to award noneconomic damages couldn't receive more than $325,000.
A 2014 statute signed by then-Gov. Sam Brownback has gradually increased the maximum payout on noneconomic damages from $250,000. The cap was scheduled to reach $350,000 in 2022.
The case considered by the Supreme Court involved a woman injured in November 2010 when her car was struck from behind by an Enerpipe semi-truck. The company admitted driver of the truck was negligent.
A Sedgwick County District Court jury granted Diana Hilburn about $33,000 in actual damages for medical expenses and $301,000 in noneconomic damages for pain and suffering. The maximum award for noneconomic damages at that time was $250,000, resulting in a reduction of the jury's award to Hilburn to $283,000.
Hilburn appealed to the Kansas Court of Appeals, which upheld the district court. The Supreme Court responded with a 69-page opinion reversing the Court of Appeals and declaring the cap a violation of the Kansas Constitution.
The justices said the cap intruded upon a jury's determination of compensation owed personal injury plaintiffs to redress injuries. The court pointed to Section 5 of the state's Bill of Rights: "The right of trial by jury shall be inviolate."
The Kansas Medical Society and other critics of the decision said they would consider political options for creating a compensation system driven by financial limits on jury awards.
"I think it guarantees us a really exciting 2020 legislative session," said Gov. Laura Kelly, who had yet to review the court's decision.
Alan Cobb, president of the Kansas Chamber, said the Supreme Court set up a scenario in which "one frivolous lawsuit" could force closure of businesses with disastrous consequences for communities and families. Placing Kansas companies at a competitive disadvantage with rivals in other states operating with noneconomic damage limits is wrong, he said.
He said the Kansas Legislature must not let the court's decision go unchallenged.
"To do so," Cobb said, "would once again be ceding its responsibilities to another state branch of government."