Mo. SC says damages cap is unconstitutional

By John O'Brien | Aug 1, 2012


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (Legal Newsline) - The Missouri Supreme Court has struck down the state's cap on pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice cases.

The court ruled 4-3 that limiting noneconomic damages to $350,000 violates a right to jury trial by taking the power to determine a proper amount of damages out of a jury's hands.

The limit was part of a 2005 tort reform package. Chief Justice Richard Teitelman wrote the court's majority opinion, released Tuesday.

"Once the right to a trial by jury attaches, as it does in this case, the plaintiff has the full benefit of that right free from the reach of hostile legislation," Teitelman wrote.

"Section 538.210 directly curtails the jury's determination of damages and, as a result, necessarily infringes on the right to trial by jury when applied to a cause of action to which the right to jury trial attaches at common law.

"Because the common law did not provide for legislative limits on the jury's assessment of civil damages, Missouri citizens retain their individual right to trial by jury subject only to judicial remittitur based on the evidence in the case. Statutory caps were not permissible in 1820 (when the state's constitution was adopted) and... remain impermissible today."

The cap was enacted by a Republican legislature and aimed to lower medical malpractice premiums.

In the lawsuit challenging the cap, Deborah Watts alleged her son Naython was born with disabling brain injuries because Cox Medical Centers provided negligent services.

A jury awarded Watts $1.45 million in noneconomic damages, and the trial court reduced the amount to $350,000.

Joining Teitelman in the majority were justices Laura Stith and George Draper and special judge Sandra Midkiff, a Jackson County circuit judge sitting in for Justice Zel Fischer.

Dissenting were justices Mary Russell, William Ray Price Jr. and Patricia Breckenridge. Russell wrote that other states had agreed with a 1992 decision by the court that said a previous cap on damages did not violate the right to trial by jury.

"The holding in Adams, however, rested primarily on the fact that section 538.210 honors the right to a trial by jury," Russell wrote.

"As long as the jury finds the facts and the trial court does not interfere with the jury's fact-finding, the jury has served its constitutional task."

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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