In 2005, the Georgia Legislature embarked on a calculated frontal assault on the civil justice system, passing a series of anti-consumer laws that they said would encourage good doctors not to flee the state, while also discouraging what they termed "frivolous" lawsuits.
Their centerpiece law, a cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court as unconstitutional on March 22, 2010, almost five years later. In doing so, the Georgia Supreme Court, voting 7-0, sent the legislators a strong constitutional law message.
Noneconomic damages are those that exclude actual medical expenses, actual lost wages (both past and present), and actual losses that can be quantified in actual dollars and cents. Noneconomic damages include the harms, the pain, the scars, the paralysis, the loss of ability to engage in necessary and recreational activities, the shock, or anxiety, or worry caused by extreme harm, the loss of enjoyment of life. The Georgia legislators, in 2005, decided to take the evaluation of noneconomic losses away from jurors, and away from more than 220 years of Georgia jurisprudence, and place an artificial, one-size-fits-all cap figure of $350,000.00 in cases against a single medical facility.
The case that was appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court involved an elderly woman whose plastic surgery procedure resulted in permanent disfigurement. The jury, which actually observed the trial and were charged with deciding one specific case, rather than embarking on a one-size-fits-all approach, awarded her $900,000.00 for her noneconomic damages, which by law was capped at $350,000.00.
The appeal followed, and the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously rejected the 2005 Tort Reform law regarding the caps. In doing so, it stated that the law was unconstitutional because it infringed upon the jury’s basic function as the fact finders to make their award based upon the evidence at trial.
And when the jury’s role is infringed upon by overzealous legislative action like this law, then our constitutional right to a jury trial is violated. Specifically, Georgia’s Constitution states that "[the] right to trial by jury shall remain inviolate." This is a fundamental right.
The jury trial is one of the best tools ever invented for resolving disputes — tried and true. Our Georgia legislators have now heard the message, it is hoped.