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Medical Malpractice Claims in the Wake of Missouri Decision Striking Down Damage Caps

Caps on medical malpractice awards were part of an aggressive tort reform platform in the mid-2000’s. One rationale behind the damage cap legislation was to lower insurance premiums in an effort to attract and keep physicians. Unfortunately, even after states passed damage caps, liability insurance premiums did not decrease and the caps have harsh unintended consequences for some injured by the negligence of medical professionals.

In 2005, Missouri passed legislation capping non-economic damages at $350,000. Non-economic damage awards compensate victims for pain and suffering and are common in Missouri birth injury cases. The reason is that infants are not yet in the workforce, so an estimate of future lost earnings cannot effectively be determined as for a middle-aged worker who can no longer work in a given profession following a catastrophic injury.

Damage Cap an Unconstitutional Constraint of the Right to Trial by Jury

In July 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court found the $350,000 non-economic damage cap unconstitutional. The court in a 4-3 decision held that the legislation capping damages infringed on the victim’s right to a jury trial. The court stated that the “The individual’s right to a trial by jury cannot ‘remain inviolate’ when an injured party is deprived of the jury’s constitutionally assigned role of determining damages according to the particular facts of the case.”

The facts of the case assist in understanding the full meaning of the case for future victims and their families who seek justice through a medical malpractice case.

Deborah Watts sought care from physicians at Cox Medical Centers. She was about 39 weeks pregnant and worried because she felt less fetal movement. The doctor at the clinic did not perform the proper test or conduct additional monitoring. Watts went home, but returned two days later with no fetal movement. A fetal monitor indicated the baby was in trouble and an emergency Caesarean occurred an hour and a half later. The baby suffered catastrophic brain damage.

At trial, a jury determined that the doctor’s medical malpractice caused the baby’s severe brain injuries. As part of the verdict, the jury awarded $1.45 million in non-economic damages. This trial court reduced the award to $350,000 under the Missouri statute.

After the Missouri Supreme Court holding, the jury awarded damage amount should be reinstated.

The Effect of the Damage Cap on Litigation

The damage cap did reduce the number of malpractice lawsuits filed. A Missouri Foundation for Health study found that before the cap approximately 850 suits were filed each year compared to about 650 after the cap. The number of lawsuits, however, where a jury found in favor of the plaintiff (victim) was relatively steady at about one percent.

The average for pain and suffering awards has fluctuated before and after the 2005 legislation, but has not been more than $312,000. In addition, fewer lawsuits are not necessarily a reflection that less medical errors occurred. Some victims, especially the families of injured infants and children may have been foreclosed from bringing claims.

Legislative Response

The court’s decision may not be the last word in the damage cap debate. The Missouri legislature may yet consider a ballot initiative where voters could decide whether to amend the state constitution.

As court decisions and legislation shift Missouri law in the area of medical malpractice, it is important to consult an attorney. Speaking with an experienced medical malpractice attorney is helpful in determining whether the negligence of a medical professional contributed to an injury, and, if so, what remedies are available.