A law that limited the amount of money courts could award in lawsuits against Utah governments was unconstitutional, at least when it concerned the University of Utah hospital, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled.
In a 70-page decision released Tuesday, justices decided by a 3-2 vote to strike down a state law that limited judgments to $100,000 against governmental entities.State lawmakers repealed that law in 1983 and replaced it with one calling for a $250,000 limit. However, the decision affects only the repealed law. The court's reasoning, however, is sure to apply to the new law as well if it is challenged.
The case concerned a woman who underwent an emergency Caesarean operation at the University Hospital in 1982 and gave birth to a severely retarded baby. The woman's doctor said the child was retarded because it was partially asphyxiated at the time of birth.
The woman, Crelia Condemarin, sued the hospital and challenged the state's $100,000 damage limit. A lower court rejected the challenge.
In the Supreme Court decision, Justice Christine Durham said governments have failed to show they are being threatened by large court judgments.
"It is true, of course, that there will be less cost to the state and insurance will be more readily obtainable if the state does not have to respond in damages in excess of $100,000 for injuries caused by its health-care entities and employees or insure against those damages," Durham wrote.
"However, before the state is permitted to conserve those monies at the expense of seriously injured citizens, its citizens are entitled to a showing in the courts that a measure so drastic and arbitrary as a $100,000 cap on all damages is urgently and overwhelmingly necessary."
Durham said the situation would be different if governments were threatened with insolvency because of damage payments. She said it would be reasonable for lawmakers to settle on a cap that is large enough to compensate a majority of injuries but small enough not to threaten the treasuries of governments.
The justices sent the case back to 3rd District Judge John Rokich.