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The Oregon Supreme Court handed down a decision in Hughes v. Peacehealth on Friday February 22nd. The Court said the state law capping non-economic damages in a wrongful death case at $500,000 is constitutional. The court refused to accept arguments that the law interferes with a jury’s power to decide fair damages on a given case. In this particular case a jury had awarded a woman one million dollars for the loss of her daughter because of medical negligence. Because of this ruling, the jury’s award will be cut in half. The Court distinguished the case from all other injury cases in that at the time the Oregon constitution was written in 1857, state common law did not allow people to recover for the death of a loved one. The law contained an odd twist in those days that allowed you to recover only if someone injured you, not if the injury resulted in your death. As such, an assailant was much better off financially if his negligence caused your death, meaning he had an incentive to make sure you didn’t survive. Oregon tort reformers will probably hail the decision as a tool to limit what people can recover and thereby hold down insurance rates. What seems odd is that insurance rates right across the river in Washington, a state with no wrongful death cap, are similar to Oregon’s.

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