Missouri Lawmakers Weigh Medical Malpractice Caps

Some Missouri lawmakers are looking for a way to override the state’s Supreme Court and reinstate caps on the amount of damages that can be awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits, which the the judges have already declared unconstitutional.  

A panel of Missouri state House representatives approved a bill this week that seeks to reinstate medical malpractice caps on non-economic damages, which could override the amount of damages awarded by juries after hearing all of the evidence and testimony in the case. Instead, lawmakers seek to place an arbitrary cap of $350,000 for Missouri malpractice lawsuits.

In 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down an identical cap on medical malpractice non-economic damages, determining that such caps were unconstitutional. The proposed bill is a statutory measure that would reapply the limits. Another bill would have given lawmakers the power to amend the state’s constitution to set caps without putting the constitutional amendment to the vote of the people.

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The full House, Senate and the governor would still have to approve either measure.

Proponents of tort reform argue that caps for non-economic damages help control insurance premiums and prevent doctors from leaving the state. However, results of malpractice caps in other states dispute the actual success of such measures.

Supporters of the new legislation argue that removing the cap in cases of gross medical negligence will help ensure that doctors maintain high standards of care and encourage those in the medical profession to report instances where colleges have acted negligently.

Opponents of the cap, and of caps nationwide, say that the limitations on damage award deprive plaintiffs of the right to a trial by jury, because it ignores the jury’s deliberations and decisions in favor for an arbitrary amount set by the legislature, who has not been involved in the case, heard testimony or seen evidence.

About 30 states currently have damage caps of some form, but they have been increasingly challenged in recent years.

State Supreme Courts in Illinois and Georgia have thrown out similar damages caps in recent years, saying that the imposition of caps by the state legislatures violated the plaintiffs’ rights to a trial by jury, since the cap overrode the jury’s judgment on what the compensation for those cases should be.

California was the first state to enact a damage cap in 1975, specifically limiting the non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2005 ten states capped recoveries specifically on medical malpractice cases and another 22 have caps that are not limited to medical malpractice. About a dozen states also have caps on punitive damages.

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