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Missouri Supreme Court Rejects Caps on Non-Economic Damages

Missouri's top court has ruled 4-3 that a state law placing limits on the amount a jury can award for non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits is unconstitutional.

The state Supreme Court said the law -- which set up a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages in jury awards -- violated the right to trial by jury established in the state's constitution.

In Watts v. Cox Medical Centers, the Supreme Court of Missouri held "that section 538.210 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. Such a limitation was not permitted at common law when Missouri's constitution first was adopted in 1820 and, therefore, violates the right to trial by jury guaranteed by article I, section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution."

Washington, Oregon, Alabama and Florida have similar language in their state constitutions and have concluded that limits on damages restricts the jury's role and violates the constitutional right to trial by jury because the determination of damages is one of the factual findings assigned to the jury rather than the judge, the court said in its majority opinion. However, in separate opinions concurring in part and dissenting in part, the other justices pointed out that other states, including Nebraska, Idaho, Ohio, and Maryland, have upheld statutory caps on non-economic damages as constitutional.

The cap still applies in wrongful death lawsuits.

Non-economic damages commonly refer to pain and suffering but they also include losses such as emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of life.

Missouri previously had an inflation-adjusted cap of $579,000 for non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. But radical tort reform pushed through by the Republican-lead legislature in 2005 lowered the amount to $350,000 and applied the cap to the total amount owed by all defendants, rather than against each defendant for each act of negligence as had been permitted under the old law.

The rationale behind caps is a concern for rising malpractice premiums and concern that doctors will prefer to provide medical care in states that lack the caps.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit involving a baby that was born with severe brain injury due to alleged negligent health care services. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded her $1.45 million in non-economic damages and $3.371 million in future medical expenses. The trial judge reduced the jury's award for non-economic damages from $1.45 million to $350,000.

The trial judge also set up a payment schedule for the medical damages award, which called for an immediate payment of half of the net future medical damages with the other half paid in equal annual installments over the next 50 years with an interest rate of 0.26 percent, the court explained.

Watts filed an appeal. She argued that not only was the non-economic damage limitation unconstitutional, but that the payment schedule was arbitrary and unreasonable in that it does not assure full compensation because of the low interest rate and extended payment schedule.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the judge did not have the authority to determine how payment of the award would proceed and remanded the case on that issue.

Watts v. Cox Medical Centers was published on July 31.

Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz has been fighting for the victims of negligence for many years. Call us at 410-234-0100 or email us for a free consultation and let us help you.

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