The Oregonian newspaper recently reported a compromise concerning a recent Supreme Court holding striking down an outdated Oregon law limiting damages for any damage caused by a public agency to $200,000, no matter what the actual loss. Commonly called the Tort Claims Act, the law limited what someone could recover if their property was damaged, or if they were injured or killed by an act of negligence committed by any public agency. The law affected individuals, small businesses and even large private corporations. From the little guy having his delivery truck run off the road by a county vehicle to the owner of a large container ship having his vessel sunk at the Port of Portland. The most they could recover was $200,000, irrespective of what it cost to repair or replace the damaged property. The law also capped damages for injury claims. An accident caused by Tri Met put you in the hospital? Your medical bills over $300,000? Too bad. You can only recover the maximum $200,000. The rest you have to pay for, whether or not you have medical insurance. The law has been in place for decades and was long overdue for a change. Part of the problem was that no yearly cost of living adjustment (COLA) was put into the law when first enacted. Why state legislatures continue to pass laws setting certain dollar amounts for items without including a COLA still amazes many. It doesn’t take long for inflation to eat away at what the law was initially meant to accomplish. What things cost back in the 1970s has little relevance to the cost of items in 2009. Medical care is a prime example. The cost of care has risen more than the rate of inflation every year since 1980. Everyday consumer goods, services and big ticket items like homes and automobiles cost many times more than what they did four decades ago as well. Which was part of the reason the Oregon Supreme Court ruled a law limiting your right to be reimbursed for damage caused by a public agency unconstitutional. The case in question was Clark v. OHSU. A tragic story involving a young child at OHSU hospital in Portland. He was horribly injured when someone carelessly shut off his oxygen, causing permanent and irreversible brain damage. Initial estimates showed his parents would be saddled with medical bills alone of almost eleven million dollars to care for their son. Limiting his parent’s right to recover only $200,000 based upon this old law would have been a major injustice. So the state legislature in Salem is considering increasing the dollar limits on claims against public agencies like OHSU to 1.5 million. Maybe not enough to cover what happened to the family in the Clark case, but a significant increase over the old amount. And the other good news? A COLA will be attached to the bill.
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