But in February 2017, the Arkansas General Assembly proposed a constitutional amendment to limit certain types of personal injury awards. Specifically, the proposed amendment would have capped punitive damages at $500,000; or three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to the victim. Whichever was greater; and limited non-economic damages to $500,000 per claimant, or $500,000 for all beneficiaries in a wrongful death case. “Non-economic” damages refers to awards for a victim’s pain and suffering; emotional distress; and other injuries that cannot normally be measured or quantified.
Arkansas requires voter approval for constitutional amendments. This amendment has been included on the November 6, 2018, general election ballot. But on October 18, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered the Arkansas Secretary of State “to refrain from counting, canvassing, or certifying any votes cast for or against” the measure.
The Court did not take a position on the merits of the amendment itself. Rather, it held the General Assembly failed to comply with the technical requirements for proposing constitutional amendments. The constitution, itself, states the General Assembly may not propose more than three amendments; to the voters at any one time. The amendments must also be proposed separately; that is, the legislature cannot require the voters to approve a group of unrelated amendments, as a single block.
In addition to the provisions limiting personal injury awards and attorney’s fees, the proposed amendment would also grant the General Assembly the authority to amend or repeal internal rules adopted by the Supreme Court to govern judicial proceedings. As the Supreme Court explained, there was no “general subject” that covered all of these topics. Consequently, the Court said it would be unconstitutional for the Secretary of State to count or certify the votes for this amendment.
Arkansas personal injury attorney Don R. Elliott Jr. said the Court’s ruling is good news for individuals and families who have personal injury claims pending before the Arkansas courts. “The state constitution recognizes that judges and juries are in the best position to decide what constitutes a fair award in personal injury cases. The legislature should not seek to upend this system in a haphazard manner that itself violates the constitution.”
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