June 18, 2019
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Kansas Supreme Court Strikes Cap on Non-economic Damages for Personal Injuries

On June 14, 2019 the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in Hilburn v. Enerpipe Ltd (No. 112,765.) that the statutory cap (K.S.A. 60-19a02) on non-economic damages in personal injury actions violates the “right to trial by jury” in Section 5 of the Kansas Bill of Rights. The Court held “the noneconomic damages cap under K.S.A. 60-19a02 violates [the plaintiff’s] right protected by Section 5 because it intrudes upon the jury's determination of the compensation owed to redress her injury.”

In Hilburn, the plaintiff (Diana Hilburn) was injured when a commercial truck driver rear-ended the vehicle she was riding in. Hilburn sued the truck’s owner alleging that its driver’s negligence was the cause of her injuries. At trial the jury awarded $335,000 in damages to the plaintiff, which consisted of $33,490.86 in economic damages (medical expenses) and $301,509.14 in non-economic damages (e.g., pain and suffering).  Applying the cap in section 60-19a02 that was applicable at the time of trial, the trial court reduced the non-economic damages award to $250,000. (In 2014, the Kansas legislature passed Senate Bill 311 that gradually increased the cap on non-economic damages. The most recent cap on non-economic damages was $325,000 and was set to increase to $350,000 after July 1, 2022.) The plaintiff appealed on the grounds that the damages cap was unconstitutional, and the Kansas Supreme Court ultimately ruled in her favor.

The Hilburn Court specifically overturned its own earlier holding in Miller v. Johnson 295 Kan. 636 (2012), which had rejected a similar constitutional challenge to the statutory non-economic damages cap in a medical malpractice action.  In Miller, the Supreme Court applied both Section 5 and Section 18 of the Kanas Bill of Rights. Section 18 provides that “[a]ll persons, for injuries suffered in person, reputation or property, shall have remedy by due course of law, and justice administered without delay.” Applying Section 18, the Miller Court recognized an implied “quid pro quo” due process test when determining if a statute constitutionally infringes upon a jury’s damages award. Under Section 18’s two-pronged quid pro quo test, a jury’s determination could be statutorily altered if, first, a court determined a modification was reasonably necessary in the public interest to promote public welfare, and second, if the court determined the legislature substituted an adequate statutory remedy for the modification. Essentially, the Miller Court held Section 5’s impairment was permissible so long as the “quid pro quo” test as applied to Section 18 was satisfied. The Hilburn Court disagreed, holding the right to a jury award provided by Section 5 of the Bill of Rights was not altered by Section 18, because these sections are different concepts, with different purposes, and require their own unique analyses.

In short, after Hilburn, the cap on non-economic damages in Section 60-19a02 is unconstitutional, and thus cannot be used to limit or reduce a jury’s damage award.  Kansas has also abandoned the quid pro quo test when analyzing whether a statutory non-economic damages cap is unconstitutional. This change may have a sweeping impact on litigation in Kansas, especially for personal injury cases with potential for high-dollar non-economic damage awards.

If you have any questions about this alert, please contact your Lathrop Gage attorney or one of the attorneys listed above.