Certification of Questions of Law from U.S. Court of Appeals for Eighth Circuit, Pursuant to Provisions of SDCL 15-24A-1, Matter of, A-1

Citation1996 SD 10,544 N.W.2d 183
Decision Date31 January 1996
Docket NumberNo. 18838,A-1,18838
Parties-24, and concerning federal action. William KNOWLES and Jane Knowles, on behalf of themselves and as guardians of their minor son, Kris Knowles, Plaintiffs, v. UNITED STATES of America, Defendant. Supreme Court of South Dakota. Original Proceeding
CourtSupreme Court of South Dakota
Original Proceeding

Argued Feb. 14, 1995.

Decided Jan. 31, 1996.

Opinion of Gilbertson, J.

John J. Delaney, Johnson Huffman, P.C., Rapid City, for plaintiffs.

Bonnie P. Ulrich, Craig Peyton Gaumer, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Office, Sioux Falls, for defendant.

Mark Barnett, Attorney General, Sherri Sundem Wald, Assistant Attorney General Pierre, for Amicus Curiae State of South Dakota.

Timothy M. Engel of May, Adam, Gerdes & Thompson, Pierre, for Amicus Curiae South Dakota State Hospital Association and South Dakota State Medical Association.

¶1 Justice RICHARD W. SABERS delivers the majority opinion of the Court on the result of unconstitutionality of the damages cap of SDCL 21-3-11 based on due process and on questions 3 and 4.

¶2 Justice DAVID GILBERTSON delivers the majority opinion of the Court on the rationale for unconstitutionality and on the revival of the 1985 version of SDCL 21-3-11 and on question 2.

¶3 SABERS, Justice, writing the majority opinion on the result of unconstitutionality of the damages cap of SDCL 21-3-11 based on due process and on questions 3 and 4.

¶4 Parents brought suit for severe injuries suffered by minor son while under care of Air Force hospital. The United States admitted liability and invoked the $1 million cap on medical malpractice damages. The federal district court held the cap was constitutional under the South Dakota and United States Constitutions. On appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, four certified questions were presented and accepted by the South Dakota Supreme Court. For the reasons set forth herein, we hold that the damages cap of SDCL 21-3-11 is unconstitutional.


¶5 Kris Knowles was twelve days old when he was admitted for treatment of a fever at the Ellsworth Air Force Base Hospital, near Rapid City, South Dakota. Medical Service Specialists, the Air Force's equivalent to nurses' aides, recorded Kris' temperature. On the night before his discharge, the specialists failed to report to nurses or physicians that Kris' temperature had been dropping throughout that night. Kris developed hypoglycemia and suffered respiratory arrest resulting in severe, permanent brain damage.

¶6 William and Jane Knowles brought suit on their own behalf and for Kris for medical malpractice, emotional distress, and loss of consortium. The United States admitted liability for medical malpractice and filed a motion for entry of judgment of $1 million based on SDCL 21-3-11, 1 which limits damages in medical malpractice actions to $1 million. In Knowles v. U.S., 829 F.Supp. 1147, 1157 (D.S.D.1993), the United States District Court of South Dakota, Western Division, (district court) ruled that SDCL 21-3-11 was constitutional and entered judgment for $1 million. Knowles appealed. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals certified four questions to this court, which we accepted:

1. Is the SDCL 21-3-11 damages cap unconstitutional under South Dakota's Constitution? Specifically, is it violative of any of the following portions of the South Dakota Constitution: SDConstArtVI, § 6, the right to a jury trial; SDConstArtVI, §§ 2 and 18, due process and equal protection of law; SDConstArtVI, § 20, the open-courts and remedy-for-injury provision; or SDConstArtIII, § 23(9), forbidding certain special legislation?

2. Are Medical Service Specialists "practitioners of the healing arts" for purposes of SDCL 21-3-11?

The district court answered in the affirmative. Knowles, 829 F.Supp. at 1151.

3. Does South Dakota law recognize emotional distress or loss of consortium for injuries to a minor child as a separate cause of action?

The district court determined that there was only one cause of action for the purpose of its decision. Id. at 1152-53.

4. Does the statutory limitation on damages apply separately to each of the three plaintiffs in this case and each of the two separate causes of action?

The district court answered in the negative. Id. at 1152.

¶7 Question 1: Is the SDCL 21-3-11 damages cap unconstitutional under South Dakota's Constitution?

There is a strong presumption that the laws enacted by the Legislature are constitutional and that presumption is rebutted only when it clearly, palpably and plainly appears that the statute violates a provision of the constitution.

Specht v. City of Sioux Falls, 526 N.W.2d 727, 729 (S.D.1995) (citations omitted). [p a)]

Initially, we note that many courts have invalidated limitations on damages based on their respective state constitutions. Moore v. Mobile Infirmary Ass'n, 592 So.2d 156, 158 (Ala.1991) (citing Smith v. Dep't. of Ins., 507 So.2d 1080 (Fla.1987) (invalidating a damages cap on personal injury awards); Wright v. Central Du Page Hosp. Ass'n, 63 Ill.2d 313, 347 N.E.2d 736 (1976); Brannigan v. Usitalo, 134 N.H. 50, 587 A.2d 1232 (N.H.1991); Carson v. Maurer, 120 N.H. 925, 424 A.2d 825 (N.H.1980); Arneson v. Olson, 270 N.W.2d 125 (N.D.1978); Morris v. Savoy, 61 Ohio St.3d 684, 576 N.E.2d 765 (1991); Lucas v. United States, 757 S.W.2d 687 (Tex.1988); Condemarin v. Univ. Hosp., 775 P.2d 348 (Utah 1989); Sofie v. Fibreboard Corp., 112 Wash.2d 636, 771 P.2d 711 (1989) (amended by 780 P.2d 260 (Wash.1989)) (invalidating a damages cap on all personal injury actions)).

¶8 Other jurisdictions have upheld a damages cap: Moore, 592 So.2d at 158 (citing Fein v. Permanente Medical Group, 38 Cal.3d 137, 211 Cal.Rptr. 368, 695 P.2d 665 (Calif 1985); Johnson v. St. Vincent Hosp., Inc., 273 Ind. 374, 404 N.E.2d 585 (1980) ; Samsel v. Wheeler Transport Servs., Inc., 246 Kan. 336, 789 P.2d 541 (1990)) (modified on statutory grounds by Bair v. Peck, 248 Kan. 824, 811 P.2d 1176, 1191 (1991); Etheridge v. Medical Center Hosps., 237 Va. 87, 376 S.E.2d 525 (1989)). See also Carol A. Crocca, Validity, Construction, and Application of State Statutory Provisions Limiting Amount of Recovery in Medical Malpractice Claims, 26 ALR5th 245 (1995); Gary D. Jensen, Legislative Larceny: The Legislature Acts Unconstitutionally When It Arbitrarily Abolishes or Limits Common Law Rights to Redress for Injury, 31 SDLRev 82, 82 (1985) ("Much of the [protectionist legislation for health care providers] has been struck down as unconstitutional.").

¶9 However, the questions presented herein generally turn on the particular constitutional provisions of the state and the case law precedent interpreting those provisions. Because the provisions of the South Dakota Constitution guaranteeing the right to jury trial, open courts and due process are dispositive, we do not reach the other constitutional questions.

SDCL § 21-3-11

violates the right of trial by jury.

South Dakota Constitution article VI, § 6 guarantees the right of trial by jury:

The right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate and shall extend to all cases at law without regard to the amount in controversy[.]

(Emphasis added); see SDCL 15-6-38(a) ("The right of trial by jury ... shall be preserved to the parties inviolate.") (emphasis added). "Inviolate" has been defined as "free from change or blemish: pure, unbroken ... free from assault or trespass: untouched, intact[.]" Sofie, 771 P.2d at 721-22 (citing Webster's New Third International Dictionary, 1190 (1976)). In discussing the role of the jury, the United States Supreme Court has stated:

Maintenance of the jury as a fact-finding body is of such importance and occupies so firm a place in our history and jurisprudence that any seeming curtailment of the right to a jury trial should be scrutinized with the utmost care.

Dimick v. Schiedt, 293 U.S. 474, 486, 55 S.Ct. 296, 301, 79 L.Ed. 603, 611 (1935) (assessment of damages is a "matter so peculiarly within the province of the jury[.]").

¶10 "A jury is the tribunal provided by law to determine the facts and to fix the amount of damages." Schaffer v. Edward D. Jones & Co., 521 N.W.2d 921, 927 n9 (SD 1994) (citation omitted). "[T]he amount of damages to be awarded is a factual issue to be determined by the trier of fact[.]" Sander v. Geib, Elston, Frost Professional Ass'n, 506 N.W.2d 107, 119 (S.D.1993) (citation omitted). With any jury award for personal injuries, we "have allowed [the jury] 'wide latitude' " in making its award. Id. (citation omitted).

We are unwilling to allow the trial court authority to limit a damages award as a matter of law ... A jury determination of the amount of damages is the essence of the right to trial by jury--to go beyond the procedural mechanisms now in place [remittitur] for reduction of a verdict and to bind the jury's discretion is to deny this constitutional right.

Moore, 592 So.2d at 161 (citation omitted) (emphasis in original). The damages cap is unconstitutional because it limits the jury verdict "automatically and absolutely" which makes the jury's function "less than an advisory status." Id. at 164 (emphasis in original).

¶11 SDCL 21-3-11 arbitrarily and without a hearing imposes a limitation of one million dollars on all damages in all medical malpractice actions. It does so without provisions for determining the extent of the injuries or resulting illness, or whether these injuries or illness resulted in death. It purports to cover even those cases where the medical costs occasioned by the malpractice alone exceed one million dollars. In other words, the damages recovered in these cases could actually be payable to the wrongdoers for medical expenses, not to the victims. It does so in all cases, even when a judicial determination of damages above one million dollars results from an adversarial hearing after notice.


To continue reading

Request your trial
49 cases
  • Verba v. Ghaphery
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • December 13, 2000
    ...987 P.2d 463 (1999); In re Certification of Questions of Law from United States Court of Appeals for Eighth Circuit (Knowles v. United States), 544 N.W.2d 183 (S.D. 1996); Lucas v. United States, 757 S.W.2d 687 (Tex. 1988); Sofie v. Fibreboard Corp., 112 Wash. 2d 636, 771 P.2d 711, amended ......
  • Veeder v. Kennedy, 20360
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of South Dakota
    • February 24, 1999
    ...empowered to eliminate laws whenever we surmise they are no longer relevant or necessary." Matter of Certification of Questions of Law (Knowles), 1996 SD 10, p 66, 544 N.W.2d 183, 197. The law has long recognized that a determination of policy and the duration of that policy remains within ......
  • Papke v. Harbert
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of South Dakota
    • August 15, 2007
    ...the Legislature calculated that malpractice insurance rates would be reduced, thereby lowering the cost of health care to all citizens. 1996 SD 10, ¶ ¶ 60-62, 544 N.W.2d 183, 195-97 (Gilbertson, J., concurring in part, concurring in result, and dissenting in part); see also Peterson v. Burn......
  • Verba v. Ghaphery
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • June 19, 2001
    ...(Utah 1989); Brannigan v. Usitalo, 134 N.H. 50, 587 A.2d 1232 (1991); Smith v. Schulte, 671 So.2d 1334 (Ala. 1995); Knowles v. United States, 544 N.W.2d 183 (S.D.1996); Best v. Taylor Machine Works, 179 Ill.2d 367, 228 Ill.Dec. 636, 689 N.E.2d 1057 (1997); Martin v. Richey, 711 N.E.2d 1273 ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 provisions
  • Chapter 123, SB 213 – Limitation on damages for medical malpractice amended
    • United States
    • South Dakota Session Laws
    • January 1, 1997
    ...OF THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA: Section 1. As a result of the decision of the South Dakota Supreme Court in Knowles vs. United States, 1996 SD 10, 544 NW2d 183 (1996), the Legislature accepts the court's analysis and finds that Chapter 167 of the Session Laws of 1985 is now and has been part ......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT