Most legal cases that garner widespread public attention are constitutional law cases. The vast majority of legal cases will have decisions that only apply to the individual parties in the suit. For example, if a local resident suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident and sues the other driver, the resolution of that case hinges only on what happened between those two parties. The ultimate resolution may be interesting, but it has little effect on others.
Our Chicago brain injury lawyers appreciate that constitutional challenges are different. There is much more interest in cases where constitutional arguments are made, because they often implicate laws passed by state and federal legislative bodies. If the laws themselves are somehow found to violate principles within the constitution, then the effects will go far beyond the individual parties named in the suit.
However, there is often confusion about the specific way that these cases are brought. Behind each major constitutional challenge there are individual plaintiffs who are challenging a law based on their own specific situation. Therefore, technically, even decisions in constitutional cases only apply to individual parties, not the public as a whole.
For example, The News-Leader reported this week on a high profile state constitutional challenge in Missouri. The state Supreme Court heard arguments on a challenge to a state law that placed an arbitrary cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. The legal challenge is an extension of a brain injury case, filed by a family who argued that their son’s permanent injuries were caused by inadequate care being provided by a medical team during his birth. The boy suffers from cerebral palsy, cannot walk or talk, and will need 24-hour care throughout his life. The jury in that case agreed that the injuries were caused by inadequate care. They reached a verdict for the plaintiff and awarded them $1.45million in non-economic damages.
However, because of the cap law in the state, the majority of that non-economic damage award was cut. Following the imposition of the law, the family appealed, claiming that the law itself is unconstitutional.
Of course, much attention in the state has been focused on that individual case, because the implications of the Supreme Court decision will have ramifications in all future cases. Yet, technically whatever the court decides will only apply to the individual families in this case. Even if they rule the law unconstitutional, that judicial ruling does not automatically mean that the law suddenly does not exist. Instead, what it means is that there is legal precedent in the state (at the highest level) which rejects the laws applicability. Technically, the state can still seek to apply the law that is one the books, even after this ruling. However, if they do so, the plaintiffs can appeal the imposition. They are essentially guaranteed a win on their appeal because of the high court precedent which finds the law unconstitutional. Therefore, while these constitutional challenges technically only affect the named parties, the practical effect is to make the law unenforceable.
At the end of the day, these are interesting but moot legal distinctions. Constitutional challenges change the legal landscape for all community members. When it comes to challenges to cap laws, the consequences of that decision will affect all those in the future who may seek to hold others liable for wrongdoing in the civil justice system.
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