Utah’s Cap on Medical Malpractice Damages Held Unconstitutional in Suits for Wrongful Death

Smith v. U.S., — P.3d — (Utah 2015), 2015 WL 4742499

As I previously wrote here and here, some state constitutions protect plaintiffs’ right to file a tort action at common law against legislative curtailment.

Article XVI, section 5 of the Utah Constitution gives plaintiffs a similar, albeit more narrow, protection:

“The right of action to recover damages for injuries resulting in death, shall never be abrogated, and the amount recoverable shall not be subject to any statutory limitation, except in cases where compensation for injuries resulting in death is provided for by law.”

Based on that provision, the Utah Supreme Court voided the state’s $450,000 damage cap on noneconomic damages recoverable by victims of medical malpractice, is Utah Code Ann. § 78B–3–410. The cap’s defenders tried to convince the Court, unsuccessfully, that it falls into the exceptional category of “compensation for injuries resulting in death is provided for by law.” The Court decided that “compensation” mentioned in Art. XVI, s. 5 proviso does not include “damages for injuries.” The Court explained that “The word damage defines the constitutional protection; the word compensation defines the scope of the exception. Accordingly, the two terms must mean something different otherwise the exception would swallow the rule. We gain insight into the meaning of the compensation exception by its context. The compensation exception was not part of the original constitution, but was added through an amendment made in 1921. The exception remedied the inconsistency between the unamended constitutional provision and the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1917. Thus, as we have previously held, the term compensation, as used in amended section 5, carries the same meaning that it had in the Workmen’s Compensation Act, namely “any payment required by the act to be made to a workman or to his dependents, or for their benefit, or into the state treasury for the special purposes of the compensation act.” (citations omitted)