Circuit Court Finds Prejudgment Interest Statute Unconstitutional

by Bradley Michalowski

On May 27, 2022, Cook County Judge Marcia Maras concluded that a statute providing for prejudgment interest for plaintiffs asserting personal injury and wrongful death torts is invalid and unconstitutional.

In Hyland et al., v. Advocate Health and Hospital Corp. et al., the representatives of prematurely born twins (one of whom did not survive) sued alleging negligence by the Defendant doctors. As the suit was pending, the Illinois General Assembly passed Senate Bill 0072, which Governor Pritzker signed and later became law on July 1, 2021. As we previously reported, the Bill provided interest at a rate of 6% on all damages incurred pre-judgment for plaintiffs who bring personal injury and wrongful death claims. 735 ILCS 5/2-1303.

Believing that Senate Bill 0072 violates the Illinois Constitution, a defendant filed a motion asking the court to deem it invalid. The plaintiff countered that the alleged constitutional issues failed to satisfy the ripeness doctrine because a judgment had not yet been entered.

After concluding that the constitutional issues were ripe for review, the court struck down Senate Bill 0072 as unconstitutional on two grounds.

First, the court found that the Bill violated Illinois Constitution Article I, Section 13, which safeguards the right to trial by jury. In the court’s view, an additional award of prejudgment interest for personal injury and wrongful death torts infringes upon that right because the Bill’s fixed interest rate disallows the jury to evaluate all aspects of the case. Additionally, Judge Maras was persuaded that Illinois juries already factor in prejudgment interest when calculating damages. For those reasons, Judge Maras held Senate Bill 0072 invalid because it usurped the jury’s role to determine damages.

Second, Judge Maras also held that Senate Bill 0072 violates the prohibition against special legislation in the Illinois Constitution. Judge Maras used two tests in coming to this conclusion: the strict scrutiny test and the rational basis test.

According to the court, Senate Bill 0072 did not survive strict scrutiny. This was primarily because the Illinois state legislature stripped the jury of the ability to assess damages through the passage of this Bill which innately factors in prejudgment interest. In the court’s words, this “cannot be construed to advance any compelling State interest.”

Nor could the Bill pass the much more lenient rational basis test. The court concluded that Senate Bill 0072 discriminates against defendants in personal injury and wrongful death suits, as those are the only torts which allow prejudgment interest benefit for a prevailing plaintiff. This created an arbitrary classification, which was constitutionally impermissible. As the court put it, the Bill wrongly “divides tort parties into two groups: parties to a personal injury and wrongful death actions who are subject to prejudgment interest, and all other tort parties who are not.” This “clearly and arbitrarily favors personal injury and wrongful death plaintiffs and is not rationally related to any State interest.” Moreover, the Bill “may allow a not so diligent plaintiff to reap the advantage of prejudgment interest even where that plaintiff has dragged their feet in the litigation.” The fact that the Bill lacks a vehicle to measure which party may be at fault for delay cut against it having a rational basis. Thus, the court held the Bill unconstitutional.

The circuit court’s ruling in Hyland signals that Senate Bill 0072’s oppressive prejudgment interest scheme may not survive after all. However, the issue will likely be taken up with the Illinois Supreme Court. Therefore, litigants statewide should continue to monitor the constitutionality of Senate Bill 0072.