Horton v. OHSU Decision: Injured People Do Not Deserve a Fair Trial

Posted on behalf of Rizk Law on Feb 21, 2019 in Legal News

The right to be heard by your peers in a trial by jury is an idea that unites most Americans. But Oregon politicians and Supreme Court Justices don’t think injured people deserve a fair jury trial. If a person is severely injured in Oregon, they can have their day in court: in theory. But after the jury goes home, satisfied that justice was done, the judge might undue everything by altering the damages the jury awarded the severely injured plaintiff.

“Back in the Day”

The modern Jury Trial can be traced back almost 1000 years to England, but we will skip ahead to 1857.

1857 was not a great time to live in Oregon unless you were a rich white man. But, even back then, the importance of the jury trial was recognized. Enshrined in the Oregon constitution was the idea that “in all civil cases the right of Trial by Jury shall remain” pure and unviolated. In the early 1900’s an amendment to the Oregon Constitution strengthened the right to a jury trial, and, for a time, Oregon Courts protected the right to a jury trial.

The (Rich) Men Behind the Curtains

Business was booming in the early 20th Century. With telephones, railroads, assembly lines, and cars came an increasingly connected society. With the rise of technology also came the rise of the megacorporation and modern special interest groups.

One of the (many) rights these mega-corporations and special interests wished to do away with is the right to a jury trial. Many of these companies produced products that were dangerous to use or manufacture. Corporations feared being dragged in to court and judged by the public for the harms they cause people in their endless, and often reckless, pursuit of higher profits. They saw the jury trial as an obstacle to doing business.

With the jury trial gone, they could focus on what mattered: profits.

Tort Reform Hysteria

Lobbying campaigns nationwide began to convince politicians to do away with the right to a true jury trial. Caps on damages were often implemented, and in 1987, Oregon politicians capped pain and suffering at $500,000 for injured persons. This cap meant that no matter how horrible the injuries and suffering somebody might cause a person, they would only have to pay for the injured person’s medical bills, lost wages, and $500,000.

In 1999, the Oregon Supreme Court determined in Lakin v. Senco that this limitation on damages was an unconstitutional violation of the right to a jury trial.

After all, what is the point of being heard by a jury if the judge, not the jury, decides the amount the defendant must pay?

The Magic Trick

In 2016, in Horton v. OHSU, the Supreme Court of Oregon decided to reverse their earlier decision that the $500,000 cap was unconstitutional.

In Horton, a doctor’s negligence caused a 6-month-old baby to forever be permanently disabled. The jury determined the baby needed $6 million in future medical care. After the jury awarded $6 million for medical bills, and a further $6 million for the pain and suffering of being severely disabled for the rest of the baby’s life, the court took the verdict away, saying $500,000 was adequate compensation for being severely disabled for a lifetime.

The jury walked away thinking they had done justice, but it was all a sham, taken away by a handful of supreme court justices.

Where are We Today?

Since Horton, there has been confusion as to the scope of Horton v. OHSU. The Oregon Supreme Court has not clarified if the $500,000 cap from Horton applies to all defendants, or if it only applies to government or public bodies, like OHSU.

The Oregon Supreme Court has recently taken up another case, Vasquez v. Double Press Manufacturing, where one party is claiming the $500,000 cap violates a different constitutional right: the right to a remedy.

The Supreme Court has already heard the arguments, and we now await their decision. There have been numerous changes to the Justices of the court since Horton v. OHSU was decided, so it is anyone’s guess as to what will come from Vasquez.

Written by: Sam Pope Law Clerk Rizk Law