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Court backs awards cap in wrongful death cases.

Byline: Bill Bishop The Register-Guard

The Oregon Supreme Court on Friday ruled the state's $500,000 limit on jury awards for noneconomic damages in wrongful death lawsuits does not violate a person's right to have a jury decide damages.

The ruling stems from the 2001 death of 19-year-old Jill Dieringer, a University of Oregon student who was mis-diagnosed at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene after falling ill with a rare and rapidly fatal form of meningococcal disease.

Dieringer's mother, Lori Hughes of Vancouver, Wash., sued PeaceHealth for wrongful death and a Lane County jury in 2003 awarded $1 million in noneconomic damages. The trial judge reduced the award to $500,000 to conform with the law, and Hughes appealed.

Friday's ruling does not change Oregon law. The Legislature in 1862 set the state's first limit - $5,000 - as the maximum that could be awarded to survivors for loss of companionship and emotional suffering stemming from a wrongful death.

The Legislature in 1987 set the limit at $500,000 for those kinds of "noneconomic damages" in wrongful death cases.

Portland lawyer Linda Eyerman, who represented Dieringer's estate in the trial, argued in the appeal that the state's limit violates Hughes' right to a jury trial.

The limit renders the jury's ruling "meaningless," Eyerman said Friday.

Writing for the majority in the 4-2 ruling, Justice W. Michael Gillette reiterated the high court's long-held position, rooted in common law at the time of the state's founding.

Court rulings around that time seemed to be trending toward recognizing a common-law right to noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases, he wrote.

However, before courts arrived at that point, law-makers passed a statute recognizing the right and capping the damages.

In doing so, they took the issue away from courts and made it a statutory right subject to limits set by the Legislature, Gillette explained.

Justices Martha Walters and Robert Durham dissented.

Durham said the court's focus on whether people had a common-law right to un-limited damages for wrongful death when the state was founded is too narrow.

Walters said the legal question is more straightforward: Is an action for negligently caused death similar to other negligent acts for which the right to jury trial existed at common law? If so, Walters argued, then Hughes has a right to a jury trial and the legislature is prohibited from interfering with a jury's decision.

UO Law Professor Caroline Forell, who specializes in constitutional law, said the high court's ruling is unsurprising given Oregon's long history of limited noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases.

Nevertheless, the damage limit remains a favorite target of lawyers who hope the court will someday reverse itself.

After the 2003 trial, Hughes said the case was never about money. However, she said the limit on damages makes it financially difficult for individuals to fight big business in court.

"To me, my daughter was priceless," Hughes said Friday. "I value greatly the decision by the jurors and am disappointed the Supreme Court didn't agree."
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Title Annotation:City/Region; The state's limit on noneconomic damages is found not to violate the right to a jury trial
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 23, 2008
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