Court strikes down med-mal cap

Mother sued after son was born with brain injuries

By Pat Murphy
The Daily Record Newswire
BOSTON (Dolan Media) — The Missouri Supreme Court has decided that the state’s $350,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases violates the state constitution.
“This Court holds that [the cap] is unconstitutional to the extent that it infringes on the jury’s constitutionally protected purpose of determining the amount of damages sustained by an injured party,” wrote Chief Justice Richard Teitelman in last week’s 4-3 decision in Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers.

The issue was presented in a lawsuit brought by Deborah Watts on behalf of her son, Naython. The boy was born with catastrophic brain injuries after being delivered by emergency C-section at a Cox Medical Centers hospital in Springfield on Nov. 1, 2006.

In her ensuing medical malpractice suit, Watts alleged that her son’s injuries were due to the failure of Cox doctors to respond promptly to signs of fetal distress.

A jury found Cox liable, awarding Watts $1.45 million in non-economic damages and $3.371 million in future medical damages. The trial judge reduced Watts’ non-economic damages to $350,000 pursuant to §538.210 of the Missouri Revised Statutes.

The state legislature passed the damages cap in 2005 as part of a Republican-lead effort to curb medical malpractice lawsuits.

In striking down the law, Chief Justice Teitelman turned to the Missouri Constitution’s guarantee that “the right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate.” According to the justice, because a cap on non-economic damages was not permitted at common law when the state’s constitution was adopted in 1820, it cannot pass muster in 2012.

“Statutory caps on damages in cases in which the right to trial by jury applies necessarily changes and impairs the right of trial by jury ‘as heretofore enjoyed,’” the justice wrote. “The individual right to 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.”

Of course, the right-leaning judges on the court were appalled by this shot to the gut at the state’s tort reform efforts.

In her dissent, Judge Mary Russell, in addition to claiming that the majority was making a radical departure from the court’s precedent, complained that it was interfering with legislative prerogatives:

The majority’s distinction between the jury’s “constitutional task” and the “individual right” to a jury trial is meaningless and a distinction in name only. This argument confuses the judicial process by which claims are determined with the substance of the claims themselves. In general, the legislature is free to establish the substance of a claim, as, for instance, to allow or disallow punitive damages, but the Constitution guarantees a procedure for adjudicating that substantive claim. The right to jury trial does not limit the legislature’s authority to determine what the elements of damages shall be.


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