Missouri Malpractice Lawsuit Damage Cap Reaches State Supreme Court

The mother of a boy who suffered brain damage at birth due to a botched delivery is challenging Missouri’s cap on damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. 

The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments last month for and against a state cap of $350,000 placed on non-economic damages awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits.

The cap, set in 2005, overrides any jury decision and the wording of the law prevents juries from being told that the monetary damages they award may be partially nullified by the state’s legislature, regardless of what the jury believes the plaintiff deserves.

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The challenge was brought by Deborah Watts, of Mount Vernon, who won a birth injury lawsuit against Cox Medical Centers and staff members that she claimed were negligent during the birth of her son, Naython.

According to the complaint, the health care workers failed to act appropriately when the boy began showing signs of distress in the womb. He suffered brain damage and cerebral palsy, will likely never walk and has greatly limited mental capacities.

Last year, a Greene County jury heard her case and awarded her $4,821,000 in damages. Of that, $1.45 million was awarded for pain, suffering and other non-economic damages. However, the state cap overrides that jury’s award, reducing the $1.45 million to $350,000 without consideration for the factors that led to the jury’s decision.

Opponents of the cap, and of caps nationwide, say that the cap robs parties 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.

One attorney involved in the case also pointed out that it violates the state’s equal protection clauses, because it only applies to the health care industry. The lawyer noted that had the boy been involved in a truck accident, there would have been no non-economic damages cap.

About 30 states currently have damage caps of some form, but they have been increasingly challenged by plaintiffs with medical malpractice lawsuits 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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