Yet another state Supreme Court has struck down a cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases. At the very end of July, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the current $350,000 limit on awards for pain and suffering was unconstitutional because it deprives patients of their right to a trial by jury. The Court held that when the Missouri Constitution was enacted in 1820, residents of the state had a common law right to seek damages for medical malpractice claims. “Any limit on damages that restricts the jury’s fact-finding role violates the constitutional right to trial by jury,” said the Court. The decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a mother whose son was born with catastrophic brain damage after a delay in an emergency C-section. In addition to damages for medical care and future medical care, the jury also awarded the boy $1.45 million in damages for pain and suffering. These damages were then reduced by the judge to $350,000 as per the 2005 Missouri law which set the cap for medical malpractice cases. The case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which overturned the 2005 law by a 4-3 decision.
The Missouri State Medical Association (MSMA) reacted with great disappointment. In a statement, MSMA President Stephen Slocum said that the decision “turns back the clock to a time when a medical lawsuit crisis had pushed Missouri doctors to the breaking point.” According to the MSMA, since the 2005 law was enacted, lawsuits against doctors plummeted by almost 58%, and the state added nearly 1,000 physicians. Additionally, the Association reported that medical liability insurance premiums had fallen $27 million in that same time period.
Those who opposed the cap, such as patient advocates, claimed that it unfairly targeted children, elderly and disabled people who tend to be awarded pain and suffering damages rather than damages based on lost wages and future earnings. “Everyone who believes in the constitution should be thrilled with this decision,” said Tim Dollar, president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys.