Malpractice Awards Cap Struck Down; Limit Violates Patient's Right to Jury Trial, Missouri Supreme Court Says

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JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri Supreme Court struck down on Tuesday a $350,000 limit on jury awards for "pain and suffering" in medical malpractice cases, saying the law violates a patient's right to a jury trial.

The cap on malpractice awards was established by a 2005 state law that was championed by Republicans as part of a "tort reform" push.

In a 4-3 decision, the court said the cap "infringes on the jury's constitutionally protected purpose of determining the amount of damages sustained by an injured party," in cases involving medical errors.

The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Deborah Watts of Springfield, Mo., whose son, Naython, was born with catastrophic brain injuries at Cox South Hospital in 2006 after a delay in receiving an emergency C-section. A Greene County jury last year awarded Watts nearly $5 million, which was then reduced under the law.

The high court decision "ensures that Naython will receive the benefit of the jury's award for future medical care," according to the ruling written by Chief Justice Richard B. Teitelman.

"This is a really good day for the citizens of Missouri who believe in our Constitution," said Kansas City attorney Tim Dollar, president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys.

Capping medical malpractice awards was the keystone of the Republicans' business-oriented agenda in 2005.

That legislation was pushed by then-Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, as a way to control rising medical malpractice insurance rates. Similar measures had been vetoed twice by Blunt's predecessor, Bob Holden, a Democrat.

Blunt, who now lives in Virginia, said Tuesday that the law he signed was "a thoughtful approach to addressing a lawsuit crisis in our state. This Missouri Supreme Court decision eliminating a key provision of that law will harm hospitals, doctors, nurses and patients and sends the wrong message to potential job creators about Missouri's legal climate."

Republican legislators expressed bitter disappointment Tuesday with the Supreme Court's ruling. They said they would consider asking state voters to amend the constitution to reinstate the caps.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, said the court had reversed a "well-reasoned decision" from 1992 that found damage caps did not violate the right to a jury trial.

Sen. Rob Schaaf, a physician and a Republican from St. Joseph, said that because of the decision, rural areas would return to the days when they could not keep specialists such as obstetricians and neurosurgeons.

"It's just outrageous," Schaaf said. "The Supreme Court's decision is ultimately going to translate into endangering the lives of Missourians and their health."

Schaaf said he would like to see the Legislature call itself into special session to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to restore the caps.

He said amending the constitution was the best option, because that way, whatever the Republican-dominated Legislature passes would go straight to state voters and would not need Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's signature.

Four judges appointed by Democratic governors made up the court majority in Tuesday's decision.

Chief Justice Teitelman - who was appointed by former Gov. Holden - was joined by Supreme Court Judges Laura Denvir Stith, another Holden appointee, and George W. Draper III, who was appointed by Nixon.

The fourth member of the majority was special judge Sandra C. Midkiff. A Jackson County circuit judge, Midkiff filled in for Supreme Court Judge Zel Fischer, who did not participate in the case. Judges do not give reasons why they sit out. …