Earlier this month, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the Missouri Supreme Court struck down a $350,000 limit on jury awards for ‘pain and suffering’ in medical malpractice cases. In a 4-3 decision, the court said the law violates a patient’s right to a jury trial and that the cap “infringes on the jury’s constitutionally protected purpose of determining the amount of damages sustained by an injured part,” in cases that involve medical errors.
The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a Springfield, Mo. mother, Deborah Watts, whose son, Naython, was born with brain injuries at Cox South Hospital in 2006. The catastrophic injuries came as a result of a delayed emergency C-Section delivery. Last year, a Greene county jury awarded Watts nearly $5 million, which was reduced under the law.
The cap on malpractice awards was established by a 2005 state law, and was championed by Republicans as a way to control rising medical malpractice insurance rates. Republican legislators expressed disappointment with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and said they would consider asking state voters to amend the constitution to reinstate the caps.
Four judges that were appointed by Democrat governors made up the court majority in the decision. The three judges who disagreed with part of the decision were Mary Russel, William Ray Price Jr., and Patricia Breckenridge.
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce was one of the biggest supporters of the 2005 law that imposed damage caps, contending that damages awarded by juries for pain and suffering are “highly subjective and inherently unpredictable.” In a brief, the Chamber said, “Such awards may occur when injuries are improperly influenced by sympathy for the plaintiff, bias against a deep-pocket defendant, or desire to punish the defendant rather than compensate the plaintiff.”
The most striking change brought about by the 2005 law has been a significant decrease in the number of lawsuits filed, from a yearly average of 847 before tort reform to an average of 643 after. The average jury award for pain and suffering has fluctuated but has not reached the high of just over $314,000 in 2002.
But Jeffery Herman, a St. Louis attorney, wrote an analysis for the Missouri Health Foundation and said, “The damage cap itself really had a negligible impact on premiums, and the insurance companies remained so profitable.” Herman also said that the lack of a cap may lead to fewer medical errors, since “you could argue that medical errors would decrease because if doctors are held to compensate plaintiffs for the full amount of injuries they would be more likely to act cautious.”