Last week, the Supreme Court of Missouri struck down a 2005 state law that limited the amount of non-economic damages a jury may award in medical malpractice cases. In a 4-3 decision, the Court stated the $350,000 limit imposed on damages for pain and suffering violated a patient’s right to a jury trial.
In Watts v. Cox Medical Centers, et al., a Springfield mother filed a lawsuit after her son sustained catastrophic brain damage during his birth. A jury determined the hospital’s delay in providing Deborah Watts with an emergency Caesarian section caused her son’s brain injury and awarded the new mother almost $5 million as a result. The jury’s $1.45 million non-economic damages award was reduced, however, pursuant to the 2005 law. Watts subsequently appealed her son’s case to the Missouri Supreme Court. Chief Justice Richard B. Teitelman said the Court’s decision to strike down the so-called tort reform law will ensure that Watts’ son will receive the benefit of the jury’s decision to provide compensation for his future medical expenses and care.
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry expressed disappointment with the Court’s decision. Missouri House Judiciary Committee Chairman Stanley Cox said the state Supreme Court’s holding was a reversal of an earlier decision that held a damages cap does not violate an individual’s right to a jury trial. In response to the decision, some Missouri legislators stated they would consider asking voters to reinstate the medical malpractice caps through a constitutional amendment. Senator Rob Schaaf said a constitutional amendment would also prevent the possibility of a veto by the current Governor.
In contrast, Tim Dollar, President of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, applauded the high court’s decision. Both patient advocates and plaintiff’s attorneys believe the non-economic damages cap unfairly targets children and the elderly who do not normally receive an award for lost wages following a catastrophic injury. Although the average number of medical malpractice lawsuits filed since the 2005 law was passed has decreased from 847 per year to 643, the number of jury verdicts in favor of Missouri plaintiffs remained steady at one percent. Additionally, the Missouri Foundation for Health reported the damages cap failed to reduce health care costs in the state. Attorney Jeffrey Herman believes fewer medical mistakes may result from a lack of a damages cap as physicians and other health care providers will have an increased incentive to be cautious when providing patient care.
Many states have passed a variety of so-called tort reform laws that include an arbitrary cap for non-economic damages. Non-economic damages normally include pain and suffering, grief, loss of companionship and other injuries that are not easily calculable. In 1975, the State of Indiana placed a cap on all damages caused by medical malpractice. Despite the cap, the cost of health care in the state has continued to increase at an alarming rate.
Debate Over Raw Milk Safety Rages in Indiana, Indiana Medical Malpractice Attorney Blog, July 6, 2012
Indiana Midwife Laws, Indiana Medical Malpractice Attorney Blog, April 20, 2012
Medical malpractice cap is struck down by Missouri Supreme Court, by Blythe Bernhard, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Photo credit: kikashi, Stock.xchng