Arkansas Supreme Court Rejects Ballot Measure to Limit Personal Injury Awards - Elliott & Smith Law Firm

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Nov 13

Arkansas Supreme Court Rejects Ballot Measure to Limit Personal Injury Awards

Many state legislatures have imposed caps on the damages that individuals may receive from a personal injury lawsuit; such as a claim for medical malpractice or wrongful death. Arkansas does not presently impose such caps. The reason for this is simple–the state constitution forbids it.

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.

The amendment also included language limiting the contingency fees a personal injury victim may agree to pay his or her attorney in connection with providing legal representation.

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.

General Assembly Improperly Grouped Unrelated Amendments Together

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.

The problem here, the Supreme Court explained, was that the General Assembly packaged two sets of unrelated amendments together.

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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