Oregon Supreme Court Finds Tort Claim Act Unconstitutional

In a remarkable decision today, the Oregon Supreme Court concluded that the Oregon Tort Claims Act is unconstitutional, as applied in a case involving profound injury. The case, Clarke v. Oregon Health Sciences Univ., involved a profoundly injured child who suffered brain damage as a result of negligent care at Oregon Health Sciences.

Despite the fact that the baby’s lifetime medical needs would cost over $11 million, the Oregon Tort Claims Act limited the baby’s recovery to $200,000. The Oregon Supreme Court concluded that the limits deprived the child of a remedy guaranteed by the Oregon constitution.

Here is the link to today’s opinion: www.publications.ojd.state.or.us/S053868.htm
It’s an interesting decision. The Oregon Supreme Court strives to decide cases unanimously. And while all of the participating justices agreed to the outcome, two joined in a concurring opinion that carefully suggested how the legislature might consider fixing the constitutional problems.

The case will likely mean different things to different interests. For severely injured consumers, it means that injuries caused by the government are not artificially capped by limits that are low and outdated.

But the opinion also leaves open many questions. For example, all the justices agreed that the $200,000 maximum was constitutionally inadequate in Jordaan Clarke’s case. But what happens when the injuries are profound but don’t total $11 million in economic damages? For the present, it looks like the Court will be addressing that question on a case-by-case basis. I suppose this isn’t the end of the world, as legal systems, lawyers and judges exist specifically to frame and decide these evolving questions.

To be sure, both opinions reveal keen wisdom about the role of the judiciary as a co-equal branch of our system. The court narrowly decided the case and invited the legislature to fix the problem with specific observations that provide legislators with some guidance on how to go forward. I don’t particularly agree with how the court got there or a number of the specifics in both the majority and concurring opinions. Even so, I have to say that the court handled a tough case with grace.

Where we go from here should prove interesting for those of us who represent consumers.

David F. Sugerman

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