If your case goes to court and the jury finds you were harmed by another party’s negligence (through no fault of your own) you can generally recoup your out-of-pocket expenses. But what about the other ways your injury has affected your life? Unfortunately, the State of Ohio places limits on the amount of money the jury may award a plaintiff for certain damages – a concept known as tort reform.
Tort Reform in Ohio
Some of you may feel that this country is too litigious – awash in a landslide of frivolous lawsuits filed by greedy individuals just looking for a payout. That is precisely what corporate America wants you to think. For years, certain members of the Ohio legislature had tried to place caps (limits) on damages in civil lawsuits. But each time they enacted new tort reform laws, the Supreme Court of Ohio struck them down as unconstitutional.
In 2004, the 125th General Assembly passed Ohio Senate Bill 80 (SB 80). While most legislative actions go relatively unnoticed by the general public, the way SB 80 altered our laws is still significant today because it diminishes the rights of Ohioans in need. Once enacted, the bill placed arbitrary limits on how much an injured party may receive in a civil suit, or tort claim – a non-criminal court proceeding in which money is sought to compensate for an injury or loss to property. These limits effectively negate a jury’s interpretation of the facts presented in a case.
Learn the Lingo
To fully appreciate the impact of damage caps, it’s important to understand certain legal terms:
Damages are the compensation an injured person seeks in a civil lawsuit. There are different types of damages that may be awarded in an Ohio personal injury lawsuit. Some of these damages have caps, or limits on the amount a party may collect.
- Compensatory Damages are paid by the defendant to the victim to compensate them for losses caused by personal injury. Compensatory damages may be awarded for a wide range of losses, which are categorized as either economic or noneconomic.
- Economic damages are those that reimburse a party for economic losses, including medical bills and loss of wages for days of work missed. There are no caps in Ohio on economic damages.
- Non-economic damages compensate a party for things such as pain and suffering, mental anguish, and other intangibles.
- Punitive damages are sometimes awarded if the defendant’s behavior is found to be especially harmful or malicious. The purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff, but rather to punish the defendant for his actions and to deter others from committing a similar offense.
Damage Caps – Ohio Rev. Code §2315.18 and 2315.21(D)
When the Ohio General assembly officially enacted SB 80 in 2005, the legislation created new statutes (laws) which placed caps on both non-economic damages and punitive damages in a personal injury case.
Cap on noneconomic damages
- The Ohio cap on noneconomic damages for non-catastrophic injuries is the greater of $250,000 OR three times economic damages, subject to a maximum of $350,000 per plaintiff
- There is no cap if the victim has suffered a catastrophic injury, such as the loss of the use of a limb, a permanent and substantial physical deformity, or an injury that prevents one from caring for themselves and performing life-sustaining activities
Cap on punitive damages
- Ohio caps punitive damages at two times compensatory damages. However, in the case where the defendant is an individual or small employer, punitive damages are also limited to 10% of net worth, up to a maximum of $350,000
A Conservative Bench Upholds Damage Caps
In 2007, the plaintiff in the landmark case of Arbino v. Johnson & Johnson argued that damage caps were unconstitutional. In the past, the Ohio Supreme Court had held such caps violated a plaintiff’s rights to trial by jury, due process, equal protection; and Ohio Constitutional provisions that guarantee open courts and separation of powers. But the perseverance of the legislature ultimately paid off. In a shocking 6-2 decision, the Justices, predominately conservative, backtracked on decades of legal precedent and upheld the new statutes. In his scathing dissent, Justice Pfeifer remarked,
If a damages cap of $250,000 is constitutional . . . why can’t the General Assembly limit damages for claims they do not favor to $100,000? Or $1,000? Or $10? Under this court’s reasoning, there is nothing in the Ohio Constitution to restrain the General Assembly from limiting noneconomic damages to $1. In essence, the power to cap noneconomic damages is the power to eliminate them. But the General Assembly does not have this power; only the people by the amendment process have this power. After today, what meaning is left in a litigant’s constitutional right to have a jury determine damages?
Tort reform laws have not reduced insurance rates or provided any of the so-called societal benefits predicted by its supporters. Instead they hurt vulnerable members of society. Caps on noneconomic damages in particular penalize victims without economic damages to prove, such as the elderly, children, and individuals who have not worked outside the home. Without sufficient compensation, many of these victims must turn to public assistance to meet their ongoing needs. At the end of the day, what we are left with is a system that punishes those who have suffered while protecting the interests of wrongdoers.
Arbino v. Johnson & Johnson, 116 Ohio St.3d 468, 2007-Ohio-6948.