Essentially, Justice Hunstein, with all Justices concurring, but with Justices Carley, Hines, and Nahmias concurring specially, found that the limitation on noneconomic damages violates the right to trial by jury established by the Georgia Constitution. The Court found that the Georgia Constitution and common law adopted through the Constitution established that the amount of damages sustained by plaintiff is an issue of fact to be determined by a jury. By requiring a Court to reduce a noneconomic damages award determined by a jury that exceeds the statutory limit, the statute nullifies the jury’s findings of fact regarding damages and thereby undermines the jury’s basic function. Therefore, the caps infringe on the parties’ constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court distinguished other statutes which provide for damages limitations, specifically, the limitation on punitive damages set out in O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(c) since punitive damages are not awarded as compensation to a plaintiff but solely to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant.
Additionally, the Supreme Court found that, because the statute was unconstitutional, it is deemed to be wholly void and of no force and effect from the date it was enacted.
Based upon the three opinions we have received within the last week it is difficult to determine how the Supreme Court will view other challenges to tort reform statutes which are making their way into the appellant courts. Most importantly for most of you, will be the appellant court’s determination as to the application of the statute intending to do away with joint and several liability. I will be sure to keep you updated as to developments with regard to this statute.
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