Missouri was one of many States that impose caps on noneconomic damages (i.e. pain and suffering) in personal injury cases, specifically medical malpractice. In Missouri, an injured person could receive no more than $350,000 above his or her economic losses (medical expenses and lost wages). While that may seem like a great deal of money, it is very little to someone catastrophically injured by another’s negligence. For a simple example, consider a medical malpractice case where the doctor amputates the wrong leg (think it can’t happen – look here). That person will spend the rest of his or her life in a wheelchair and would legally be unable to recover more than $350,000 in damages!
Yesterday, the Missouri Supreme Court in Watts v. Cox Medical Center, ruled that the cap on damages was an unconstitutional infringement of ones right to a trial by jury. The Federal Constitution (mirrored by the States) guarantees the right of anyone with cause to have a trial decided by a jury of his peers. It should always be the jury who decides the outcome of a case including the damages, and not lawmakers influenced by insurance companies.
It has long been an argument of the plaintiff’s bar and American Association for Justice that caps on tort awards were unconstitutional, and this Supreme Court decision affirms our position. Hopefully, this decision will influence other States to make the same decision which they should agree is constitutionally mandated. This decision should also strike a blow for the tort reform movement (although this election campaign has not brought up the topic of tort reform nearly as much as four years ago). Numerous studies, including those conducted by independent groups with no stake in the tort reform debate, have shown that medical caps and restrictions on personal injury claims do not reduce health care costs and lead to lower quality patient care.