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Normally, the amount you could recover in a personal injury lawsuit would depend mostly on the extent of your injuries and the egregiousness of the plaintiff's negligence. The more medical bills and missed work you had, the more you would be owed. And the more careless or reckless the party responsible, the more they would be penalized. But many states have tried to place a hard limit on injury lawsuits, known as damages caps.
So what are the justifications for damages caps, and are they a good idea? A recent ballot fight in Arkansas can provide a good case study.
Natural State of the Law
The proposed ballot referendum would cap non-economic damages in medical injury cases at $250,000, and would also limit the contingency fees attorneys could recover to one-third of any award after litigation costs are deducted. Non-economic damages are sometimes referred to as making it easier to for people pain and suffering, and the cap would apply to health care providers in medical malpractice cases.
Perhaps in response to making it easier to for people some states finding similar caps unconstitutional, the measure would be an amendment to Arkansas' state constitution. And the ballot measure has drawn battles lines in Arkansas, with doctors, pharmacists, and nursing home owners on one side, and attorneys on the other. The former claim the measure protects health care providers, deters ambulance-chasing lawyers, and ultimately keeps health care costs down. The latter claim the amendment is poorly worded and would unfairly limit injured parties' access to the courts.
The Price of Push and Pull
Several lawsuits have been filed challenging the referendum, claiming the ballot title and description are misleading, and signatures gathered to put the referendum on the ballot may be invalid. "The ballot title fails to convey an intelligible idea of the scope and impact of the proposed amendment, is materially misleading to the voters, and omits material information," one such suit claims.
Beyond the structural issues with Arkansas' ballot referendum are the bigger questions about damage awards in personal injury cases. Should health care professionals (and their insurers) be responsible for injuries they cause, regardless of amount? Or are soaring jury awards discouraging good doctors from taking up or continuing the profession? While placing any dollar figure on emotional harm may seem inadequate or misguided, placing an arbitrary limit on that recovery feels equally irrational. The battle in Arkansas may be its own referendum on damages caps nationwide.