Missouri Supreme Court Overturns Medical Malpractice Limits

In late March of 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments and considered briefs from at least nine separate groups regarding the constitutionality of the 2005 amendment that set a limit of $350,000 on the amount of non-economic damages that can be awarded for a medical malpractice case. The amendment was a key provision in what was referred to as a “tort-reform” law. Non-economic damages are to compensate for pain and suffering.

The case at issue, Watts v. Cox Medical Centers, et. al. , involved a reduction by the trial court in Greene County of a jury’s medical malpractice award for non-economics damages down to the statutory limit. The law prohibited jurors from being told of the limit on non-economic damages. In the case, a jury found that physicians failed to act when an unborn child showed signs of distress in the womb resulting in the child being born with cerebral palsy. The jury awarded total damages of $4,821,000, $1,450,000 of which for non-economic damages. That amount was then reduced by the judge to $350,000 pursuant to the statute.

Attorneys argued argued that the law violates the right under the Missouri Constitution to trial by jury by denying the jurors determination in the case. Furthermore, the 2005 law violates the equal protection clause of the Missouri Constitution, by granting special protection status to health care providers. For example, had the plaintiff been injured in a vehicle accident, or by another negligent defendant rather a health care provider, all of the non-economic damages would have been awarded.

The Missouri Supreme Court decided, in a 4-3 decision, that the limits are in fact an unconstitutional violation of the right to jury trial guaranteed by the Missouri Constitution. The opinion stated that the limit on damages resulting from medical errors, “infringes on the jury’s constitutionally protected purpose of determining the amount of damages sustained by an injured party.” The divided court also noted that, “while this court always is hesitant to overturn precedent, it nonetheless has followed its obligation to do so where necessary to protect the constitutional rights of Missouri’s citizens.”

The Padberg, Corrigan & Appelbaum firm applauds the decision, not only for victims of medical negligence but for all who value the jury system guaranteed within our constitution rights as citizens. These arbitrary caps do nothing but hurt innocent victims. Prior to the 2005 amendment, Missouri had an inflation adjusted cap of $579,000 for economic damages per negligent defendant as opposed to the 2005 law which was a total amount owed by all defendants.