On May 5, 2016, the Oregon Supreme Court issued its opinion in Horton v. OHSU, SC S061992 (May 5, 2016). It is 141 pages long and significantly changes Oregon law. In summary:
Plaintiff obtained a jury verdict in a medical malpractice case of approximately $12,000,000 against Oregon Health Sciences University (a state entity) and the physician (a state employee). Defendants asked the trial judge to impose the Oregon Tort Claim damages limitation to reduce the verdict to $3,000,000. The trial court granted the request as to the hospital, but not as to the physician. A direct appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court was taken. The Supreme Court analyzed the damages cap under Oregon’s constitutional right to remedy clause and right to jury trial clause. The Supreme Court concluded that the cap did not violate the Oregon Constitution and should have been applied to reduce plaintiff’s damages. In doing so, the Supreme Court determined that much of its prior jurisprudence on these constitutional subjects was inconsistent and/or simply in error. The Court explicitly overruled two seminal Oregon cases on those subjects, one of which was Lakin v. Senco Products, Inc., 329 Or 369 (1999), the case that had invalidated Oregon’s $500,000 noneconomic damages cap in personal injury cases.
There are questions left unanswered. Some of the Court’s analysis relied on the issue of sovereign immunity. Some prior case law that would seem inconsistent with the Court’s new approach was not explicitly disavowed. However, it seems fair to conclude at this point that overall the case is highly favorable to defendants and seems likely to result in the courts (appeals and trial) upholding other statutory damages caps and other legislative limitations on claims like statutes of repose. There are several cases with similar issues pending before the Court and awaiting decision. It is possible we will see some additional decisions issue in the very near future that will answer some of the questions left unanswered by Horton.