The Oregnonian reports that the Oregon Senate approved an amendment to the Oregon Tort Claims Act which will significantly raise the damages caps for state and local government liability. This amendment is the legislature's reaction to a recent Oregon Supreme Court case that ruled the statute was constitutionally inadequate.
Without getting too technical, a "cap" is a monetary limit placed on how much money a person can recover for damages caused by another. In this case, we are dealing with the State of Oregon and its local governments. Under the current Oregon Tort Claims Act, a person who is harmed as a result of the government's negligence may make a claim for damages. However, regardless of that claimant's real damages, there are limits, or "caps" on the amount of money a person can recover. Under the current system, an injured person is limited to $100,000.00 for their economic losses, and another $100,000.00 for their "non-economic" losses.
Why the "economic" and "non-economic" distinction? "Economic" losses, in the State of Oregon, include things like medical expenses, lost wages, and other out of pocket expenses. "Non-economic" losses are described as subjective, non-monetary losses. Some people refer to this as "pain and suffering." This is one aspect of non-economic damages, but not a complete description. I remember an older lawyer once telling a client that the law gives you the right to be a whole person, but if someone takes that away from you, then you are entitled to be compensated for that loss. I tell clients that non-economic damages is compensation for the loss of their health.
The Senate addressed this issue because of a court case addressing the constitutionality of these liability caps. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Oregon decided a case called Clarke v. OHSU. In this case, Jordan Clarke's parents alleged that OHSU was negligent in treating their son, and as a result, Jordan suffered permanent and severe brain damage. The expenses for total life and health care were calculated out to $11,073,506, and the loss of Jordan's future earning capacity was figured at $1,200,000. The Clarke's also made a claim for non-economic damages $5,000,000. OHSU did something unusual, and asked for a judgment against itself, but not for these damages. Instead, OHSU, which is a part of Oregon's government, asked the trial court to apply the Oregon Tort Claim Act caps, limiting the judgment to $200,000.00. Quite a difference.
The Oregon Supreme Court found that the statute, with these limits, was unconstitutional because Oregon's Constitution guarantees a remedy to citizens harmed by another. The Clarkes were not getting a remedy with a figure representing a small fraction of their actual losses.
This new statute does a few things. First, the new limits are not separated into the "non-economic" and "economic" limits. It's just one figure. Also, the actual limit will increase each year. Then, after 15 years, the caps are indexed for inflation.
Some legislators who voted for the bill claim a need for caps on all cases, not just against the public agencies in Oregon. The usual argument is that the cost of malpractice litigation drives up health care costs. This is a matter of debate, to say the least, and so far, I have not seen any hard evidence supporting this statement. I suspect that it may be one of those arguments that, if made enough, will be accepted. There are smarter people than me who agree.