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Oregon Supreme Court Overrules Human Loss Statutory Cap

In an important victory for individual rights, the Supreme Court of Oregon has enforced Oregon’s constitutional requirement that “every  man  shall have remedy  by due course of law for injury done him in his person.”

A pedestrian lost his leg in a terrible preventable incident when he was hit by a garbage truck. The jury determined that the full and fair remedy for the man’s human losses (“noneconomic damages” such as disfigurement, pain, mental suffering, and interference with his normal activities) was $10,500,000.  The Oregon legislature had passed a statute years ago limiting that to $500,000, no matter how severe the losses. On July 9, 2020, the Oregon Supreme Court struck down that statute in Busch v. McInnis Waste Systems, Inc.  The Court found that statute requiring the reduction in the amount of noneconomic damages violated every Oregonian’s right to a remedy for injury, a right guaranteed by Article I, section 10 of the Oregon Constitution.

People who are injured through the wrongdoing of others deserve full and fair compensation for their losses.  The civil justice system depends on that to fulfill its two primary purposes: compensating those who have been wrongfully hurt, and discouraging wrongful conduct so that the community is made safer.  Often, the more purely economic portion of the losses is relatively easy to determine.  One can ask questions such as: What were the past medical expenses?  How long was the person unable to work?  What is a reasonable estimate of the future medical expenses and lost wages or earning capacity?  The parties can look at records, get out a calculator, and come up with concrete numbers.

Juries are especially needed to answer the harder questions: What are the true, human losses to the injured person?  For example, what is the value of a leg to that specific, unique individual?  What value should be placed on losses forced upon a family when they lose a loved one? These questions get at the heart of human harms and losses, which the legislature has chosen call “noneconomic damages.” A calculator cannot assess these values, so our system of justice looks to other people, our peer jurors, to assign a fair value to fully compensate an injured person.  Trials may be full of expert witnesses, but the true experts about the value of these human losses are the jury members themselves

The statute the Supreme Court struck down was intended to place a cold limit on this deeply human determination of losses.  The statute was supported by special interest groups such as large corporations and insurance companies and effectively said that no human loss has a value above $500,000.  The statute went further, preventing judges and attorneys from even telling juries about this arbitrary cap on damages.  For years, jurors worked hard to come up with the right result, and were never told that their decisions were summarily discarded after their verdict. The jurors in the Busch case disagreed with the politician’s view that no human loss has great value.  Those jurors said that the human loss of that pedestrian’s leg, and all the drastic impacts to his life, must be valued much higher.  The decision of the Oregon Supreme Court ensures that the voices of future jurors will be heard and that full and fair compensation for all injured persons can be achieved.

This case is a win for the people of Oregon.  We are proud that the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the Oregon Constitution, and enforced its mandate that every person “shall  have  remedy  by  due course of law for injury done.”

Read the full case of Busch v. McInnis Waste Systems, Inc., 366 Or 628 (2020), here: https://cdm17027.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/pdf.js/web/viewer.html?file=/digital/api/collection/p17027coll3/id/8961/download#page=1&zoom=auto