On December 27, 2007, the Ohio Supreme Court voted 5 to 2 to uphold the constitutionality of the state’s statutory cap on pain and suffering damages in personal injury lawsuits. Arbino v. Johnson & Johnson, Slip Op. No. 2007-6948.
In 2004, the Ohio state legislature enacted statutory provisions that (1) limit jury awards for pain and suffering, mental anguish and other non-economic damages to $250,000 or three times the amount of economic damages, whichever is greater (but in neither case to exceed $350,000); and (2) prohibit punitive damage awards from exceeding twice the amount of the compensatory damages awarded. These caps apply to every personal injury case unless the plaintiff is permanently disabled or has lost a limb or bodily organ system.
In the Arbino case, a plaintiff in the Ortho Evra products liability litigation against Johnson and Johnson sought an advisory ruling on the constitutionality of the statutory caps. In the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, the Court held that the challenged statutes did not violate plaintiff’s constitutional right to trial by jury. In reaching this conclusion, the Court cited various Ohio laws authorizing courts to triple the actual damages awarded in certain types of cases. Chief Justice Moyer then reasoned as follows:
In each of these statutes, the General Assembly demonstrated a clear policy choice to modify the amount of jury awards. We have never held that the legislative choice to increase a jury award as a matter of law infringes upon the right to a trial by jury; the corresponding decrease as a matter of law cannot logically violate that right.
The Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that the statutes violated her constitutional right to due process and equal protection, noting the legislature’s reliance upon a number of reports and studies during the legislative debate on S.B. 80. According to the Court, these sources logically imply that the “uncertain and subjective system of evaluating noneconomic damages was contributing to the deleterious economic effects of the tort system.” Although the Court acknowledged that tort reform remains a controversial issue throughout the country, with some states upholding the constitutionality of statutes capping damages while other states find them unconstitutional, the Court ultimately concluded that, in this instance, the Ohio state legislature had a rational and legitimate state interest in improving the state civil justice system and the economy.