Case Caption: Frederic J. Balboni, Jr. vs. Ranger American of the V.I., Inc. and Emica KingCase Number: S. Ct. Civ. No. 2018-0022Date: 06/03/2019Author: Hodge, Rhys S. Citation: 2019 VI 17Summary: On a pretrial motion in a motor vehicle accident personal injury action – in which the plaintiff sought a determination that the damage recovery cap of $100,000 in 20 V.I.C. § 555 for non-economic damages is unconstitutional, and the Superior Court certified the issues for immediate interlocutory appeal under 4 V.I.C. § 33(c) – the free-standing equal protection and due process clauses unique to the Virgin Islands Bill of Rights are separate limitations on the power of the government which (under the doctrine of constitutional avoidance) may be independently and definitively interpreted by this Court before reaching any issue under the federal constitution. Section 555 treats individuals who suffer injuries in automobile accidents differently (and less favorably) than other personal injury victims, clearly implicating the equal protection clause of the Virgin Islands Bill of Rights. Heightened rational basis review represents the appropriate standard for determining the validity of this statute, and it fails to satisfy that standard of review. The “ends analysis” and “combination analysis” of the heightened rational basis standard require consideration of the actual legislative purpose, but here the legislation creating the statute does not contain any legislative findings whatsoever, let alone findings on the non-economic damages cap, leaving only speculation as to the basis for its distinctions between classes of injured people. Even if the Court accepted the contention that the Legislature enacted the cap on non-economic damages for the legitimate purpose of stabilizing the automobile insurance market, the cap fails heightened rational basis review because some actual connection (other than mere speculation) has not been shown between the cap actually selected and that goal, hence there is no basis for concluding that the cap is a reasonable method of implementing that purpose, whether applying the more deferential “means analysis” test or the more liberal “combination analysis.” There is no evidence that a cap on non-economic damages—in any amount—will have any effect on the automobile insurance market in the Virgin Islands. Since § 555 treats certain classes of people differently but is not reasonably related to a legitimate legislative purpose, the cap on non-economic damages in automobile accident cases violates the equal protection clause of the Virgin Islands Bill of Rights. The portion of the Superior Court’s January 24, 2018 opinion holding that the plaintiff’s non-economic damages could not exceed $100,000 is reversed, and this matter is remanded for further proceedings.
Attachment: Open Document or Opinion