Kansas Supreme Court flicks away limits on certain damages in personal injury cases

In a major decision that figures to change the landscape of personal injury litigation in Kansas, the state’s supreme court on Friday ruled that caps on certain damages that juries can award are unconstitutional.

A majority of Kansas supreme court justices ruled that limits imposed by the Kansas legislature on noneconomic damages — jury awards that account for pain, suffering, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life following an injury — violate the Kansas constitutional right to a jury trial.

Damage caps have long been the scourge of plaintiffs’ lawyers who argue that they limit the ability for their clients to recover compensation after a jury finds that they’ve been wronged. Supporters of damage caps say they keep costs like insurance down for the broader public and act as a safeguard against “runaway juries” that award huge verdicts.

“We need to let juries decide damages rather than politicians,” said Thomas Warner, a Wichita personal injury attorney whose client’s case was decided by the Kansas supreme court on Friday.

Warner’s client, Diana Hilburn, was injured in 2010 when a car she was riding in was rear-ended by a semi-truck. The truck’s owner, Enerpipe, admitted the driver was negligent.

After a trial, a jury awarded actual damages of nearly $34,000 for her medical expenses and another $301,509 for noneconomic damages. But caps on noneconomic damages in effect at the time of her injury cut down the jury’s noneconomic damage award to $250,000.

The caps on noneconomic damages from an injury that occurs currently is $325,000.

Following Friday’s decision, caps on noneconomic damages for personal injury causes are unconstitutional, but the decision does not apply to wrongful death cases. It also does not apply to punitive damages, which are rare in Kansas.

“We can put pen to paper to economic damages, such as medical bills, loss of earnings, future medical care, future loss of financial support,” said David Morantz, a personal injury trial attorney for Kansas City law firm Shamberg, Johnson & Bergman. “But the noneconomic damages, which are really the reason that people seek redress from the courts, is from their disfigurement, their loss of enjoyment of life, their loss of the ability to do the things they used to enjoy doing in life, those damages had been capped... Now, with this, the noneconomic damages are whatever the jury says they are, and that’s how the law should be.”

The attorney for Enerpipe was not immediately available for comment on the court’s decision.

Sen. Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it was too early to predict how the legislature might respond to the court’s decision.

“Those caps were put on years ago to control costs in the insurance arena, to put some predictability back in insurance rates,” Wilborn said. “And any time you add to loss cost, you can anticipate in time as the awards mount, that insurance rates will increase. It’s that simple.”

Wilborn said plaintiffs could still recover whatever juries awarded in economic damages.

“There’s still economic damages that are awarded based on fact and based on actual damages,” Wilborn said. “To say there’s a cap on the whole thing is false. It’s purely on noneconomic damages and it helps mitigate runaway juries and it still doesn’t impact the other part of the award.”

Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, accused the court of going against three decades of a legal climate that he said balanced Kansans’ access to health care and a positive business climate.

“The Hilburn case will increase the cost of liability coverage for physicians and businesses and the cost will be borne by Kansas patients and taxpayers,” Ryckman said in a statement.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce was also not pleased with the decision.

“For Kansas businesses, this creates great uncertainty and could force them to close their doors and lay off employees because of one frivolous lawsuit,” Kansas Chamber chief executive Alan Cobb in a statement. “The economic domino effect of that would be disastrous for Kansas families and their communities. This decision also puts Kansas at a competitive disadvantage with states who do limit noneconomic damages.”

Justice Caleb Stegall largely agreed with the majority opinion in Friday’s decision, calling it a “difficult constitutional call.”

Justice Marla Luckert, joined by Justice Dan Biles, dissented. Luckert argued that Kansas laws requiring motor carrier liability insurance, coupled with the noneconomic damage caps, “are reasonably necessary in the public interest to promote the public welfare” and offer victims an assured source — insurance carriers — from which to recover judgments.

Warner said he had spoken to his client who was injured in the car accident nine years ago.

“She is very happy and, you know, it was never about the money in this case,” Warner said. “It was always about the constitutional right, and my client Diana Hilburn, deserves an award of a medal or something for hanging in there for so long.”

Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.