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Missouri Supreme Court Ends Medical Malpractice Cap

On behalf of Brown & Crouppen, P.C. posted in Medical Malpractice on Thursday, August 2, 2012

In a narrow decision, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled on Aug. 1 that a provision in the state’s 2005 tort reform law that limited what victims of medical malpractice can collect in damages violates their constitutional rights. The ruling will allow the mother of a boy who suffered severe birth injuries during a botched delivery to collect the full verdict awarded during trial instead of the 93 percent reduction required under the law.

As we discussed in our March 27 blog post, the mother was awarded $4.8 million after the jury in her medical malpractice lawsuit found that doctors’ delay in ordering an emergency cesarean section in November 2006 was negligent treatment and caused the child’s cerebral palsy. However, under the 2005 law non-economic medical malpractice damages could not go above $350,000, so the damages were drastically reduced despite the jury’s findings.

The case reached the state Supreme Court this spring. Opponents of the cap said that it prevented victims of catastrophic medical errors from being fully compensated for their injuries. Supporters, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that limiting damages was necessary to control jurors who become “improperly influenced by sympathy” for plaintiffs. They also argued the doctors would quit their practice or leave Missouri if they could be held fully accountable for their negligence.

However, the cap may have had less effect on the size of malpractice damages than supporters imagined. An article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes that only about 1 percent of medical malpractice cases end in a jury verdict for the plaintiff. Non-economic damages in such cases average significantly under the $350,000 figure, meaning that the cap only affected a few, severe cases.

By a 4-3 vote, the Court ruled that the cap on damages violates Missouri residents’ right to a trial by jury. Specifically, it “infringes on the jury’s constitutionally protected purpose” of finding the proper compensation for the harm suffered by a plaintiff.

The issue could come up again. Republican lawmakers said they were considering a constitutional amendment imposing a cap.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Medical malpractice cap is struck down by Missouri Supreme Court,” Blythe Bernhard, Aug. 1, 2012

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