In 1986, the Utah Legislature imposed a cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases. This means while a plaintiff alleging medical malpractice can recover the full amount of his economic damages, such as medical bills, he is limited on how much he can receive for things like pain and suffering. In enacting this damages cap, the legislature sought to protect medical professionals from large jury verdicts for discomfort. According to the Utah Supreme Court, this cap seeks “to strike a balance that provides redress for the injured while accounting for the concerns of the medical profession.” Smith v. United States, 2015 UT 68, ¶ 1, 356 P.3d 1249.
Generally, damage caps are common and upheld throughout the United States. However, article 16, section 5 of Utah’s constitution states that “[t]he right of action to recover damages for injuries resulting in death, shall never be abrogated, and the amount recoverable shall not be subject to any statutory limitation[.]” So, in a situation where medical malpractice results in a person’s death, and the surviving family members bring a wrongful death action, does Utah’s damage cap on noneconomic damages apply? This was the question the Utah Supreme Court addressed in Smith v. United States.
In Smith, the court first surveyed the history of article 16, section 5 to discover if that section was intended to apply to both economic and noneconomic damages. Before the legislature addressed the subject, the general rule was that a cause of action for personal injury—including fatal injury—died with the injured party, leaving survivors with no recourse. In 1874, the Territory of Utah adopted a statute allowing surviving family members to bring an action for wrongful death, but the damages were limited to $10,000. A decade later, the statute changed to remove the $10,000 cap.
In 1896, Utah adopted article 16, section 5 into its constitution when Utah became a state. Before Utah adopted this provision, courts continuously upheld a broad range of damages for wrongful death, including both economic and noneconomic damages. Therefore, the court determined that article 16, section 5 was intended to protect recovery of economic damages (“compensation for the loss of the reasonably-anticipated net financial productivity of the deceased and the costs occasioned by the death”) and non-economic damages (“the loss of the assistance, association, care, comfort, companionship, nurture, pleasure, protection, society, and support of the deceased”). Because such damages were available at the time Utah’s constitution was adopted, they “shall not be subject to any statutory limitation.”
Having made the foregoing determination, the court ultimately held Utah’s noneconomic damage cap was unconstitutional as applied to wrongful death causes of action. Thus, in a successful medical malpractice case involving a person’s wrongful death, the decedent’s family will be able to recover full economic and noneconomic damages without any statutory or other caps.