LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas’ Supreme Court said Thursday that voters won’t be able to consider a measure that would limit the amount of money awarded in medical liability cases because the language on the November ballot doesn’t fully describe what the proposal would do.
Ballots have already been printed, so the court ruled in a pair of orders that no votes be counted on the proposal. Under the plan’s provisions, legislators would have been allowed to cap non-economic damages against health care providers for medical injuries no less than $250,000.
Proposal supporters argued that the limits were needed to control health care costs. But in a unanimous decision, the court said the proposal’s supporters never said what “non-economic damages” meant and ruled that it would be wrong to ask voters to take a stab at a definition.
“We have disapproved the use of terms that are technical and not readily understood by voters, such that voters would be placed in a position of either having to be an expert in the subject or having to guess as to the effect his or her vote would have,” Justice Paul E. Danielson wrote in the ruling.
The court noted that most voters don’t explore ballot issues until immediately before voting. Justices reasoned that a voter wouldn’t be able to reach an “intelligent and informed decision” with only the language placed before them. The court gave the proposal’s supporters five working days to request a rehearing before its order becomes final.
The group Health Care Access for Arkansans, which backed the proposal, said it was disappointed to have the issue struck down after 130,000 people signed petitions to place it on the ballot — thousands more than needed.
Until a vote can be taken, spokesman Chase Dugger said, “doctors and hospitals will continue working in fear of trial attorneys seeking to line their pockets with limitless medical malpractice lawsuits that drive up health care costs.”
The director of a group opposed the proposal said the Supreme Court decision preserved the right of Arkansas residents to a trial by jury.
“It would have created a one-size-fits-all style of justice in order to prevent corporate nursing homes from being held accountable when they abuse and neglect nursing home residents,” said Martha Deaver of the Committee to Protect AR Families.
A special master appointed by the court raised questions about the signature-gathering process, but justices didn’t consider them while deciding two lawsuits that challenged the proposal on similar grounds.
Early voting begins in Arkansas on Oct. 24.