A law limiting the amount a person can be awarded for pain and suffering in a medical malpractice lawsuit was struck down Tuesday by the Missouri Supreme Court as a violation of the constitutional right to a trial by jury.
In a 4-3 decision, the court overturned the $350,000 cap for noneconomic damages, such as mental anguish or pain and suffering.
The caps were the centerpiece of a 2005 tort reform law passed by the Republican-led legislature and touted by then-Gov. Matt Blunt as one of his chief accomplishments during his four years in office.
At the time, supporters argued it would help reign in skyrocketing medical malpractice premiums for doctors. But opponents of the cap argued that it violated the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches, as well as an individual's constitutional right to a jury trial.
A majority of state Supreme Court judges agreed, concluding the cap "infringes on the jury's constitutionally protected purpose of determining the amount of damages sustained by an injured party."
"Such a limitation was not permitted at common law when Missouri's constitution first was adopted in 1820 and, therefore, violates the right to trial by jury guaranteed" by the Missouri Constitution, the ruling stated.
The case that brought the issue to the Supreme Court was filed by Deborah Watts. Watts sued Cox Medical Centers in Springfield and her doctors after her son, Naython, was born in 2006 with catastrophic brain injuries.
A Greene County jury eventually awarded her $1.45 million in non-economic damages, but a judge later reduced that award to $350,000 to comply with the state cap.
Stephen Slocum, a physician and president of the Missouri State Medical Association, contended that before 2005, Missouri physicians saw their medical lawsuit insurance premiums soar. Some lost coverage altogether, he said. Many physicians left their practice, retired early or abandoned high-risk services such as surgery and delivering babies.
Since the cap on damages was put into place, lawsuits against physicians have fallen by almost 58 percent, Slocum said, and the state has added nearly 1,000 physicians.
Tuesday's ruling "turns back the clock to a time when a medical lawsuit crisis had pushed Missouri doctors to the breaking point," he added. "Scores of physicians moved away, and access to health care was threatened in every corner of the state."
The Missouri State Medical Association, a trade organization that represents 6,000 physicians, is calling on lawmakers to restore the caps when the General Assembly reconvenes next year.
Joining their call is Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican from Cape Girardeau seeking re-election, who said he plans to press House and Senate leaders to "to write and pass a new law that will withstand a challenge from the liberal majority on Missouri's Supreme Court."
Blunt called the ruling "devastating news ... for health-care providers and patients and job-creators in the state." Blunt now lives in Virginia and is president of the American Automotive Policy Council.
But plaintiff's attorneys argued that the real effect of the caps was that people who suffered a lifetime injury caused by a medical mistake were denied their right to a jury deciding how much they should be awarded.
"The losses that we're talking about in these cases are the worst kind of losses -- human losses," said Tim Dollar, a Kansas City lawyer and president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys. "Everyone who believes in the constitution and the Bill of Rights should be thrilled with this decision today."
A legislative attempt to reinstate the cap would be futile, Dollar contended, since the court was emphatic that it would violate the constitution.
A similar legal challenge is pending before the state Supreme Court in Kansas, where non-economic damages are capped at $250,000.