GOP lawyers split on House medical malpractice bill


By Collin Reischman

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo — The Missouri House passed a measure that would limit non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield
Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield

Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, sponsored the legislation, House Bill 112, which is similar to a law passed by the legislature during 2005, which the state Supreme Court struck down last summer.

The bill would limit damages awarded in medical malpractice cases to $350,000 or less: the same cap the Supreme Court struck down.

Fourteen Republicans joined Democrats in opposition to the bill though it did not matter as the bill passed 91-63, but the lack of unanimity among House Republicans was unusual for this session.

While Democrats largely spoke against the bill as limiting the pursuit and execution of justice, Republicans that voted no said they saw it as a violation of the separation of powers. Lobbyists on behalf of trial attorneys saw it as legislative overreach.

“We think an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all cap is wrong and that the jury should be allowed to decide whatever damages are appropriate,” said Sara Schutte, executive director of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys. “We have a concern that the legislature shouldn’t be amending the constitution through a statute.”

Burlison said the legislature “absolutely” had the right to pass the bill, and said it showed the three branches of government working effectively, not inefficiently.

“We, as the legislative branch, we establish statutes,” Burlison said. “We recognize common law, but we can change it. Look, when the Court is referencing one section of statute in our constitution to call this unconstitutional, that’s when I call shenanigans.”

Burlison said the decision over-turning the 2005 legislation was unique, and that the Supreme Court historically has upheld such laws. He claimed the Supreme Court was in violation of “stare decisis” — court precedent — by suddenly finding caps unconstitutional against years of contrary rulings.

Burlison remains confident the legislature has the authority and the imperative to pass HB112, calling it the “ethical thing to do.”

“We have the right to do it, which is the ethical choice, and it’s going to lower the cost of health care, which is the logical choice,” Burlison said.

While he remains confident, the lawyers in the majority caucus were divided on the issue.

Representatives Jay Barnes, Robert Cornejo, Elijah Haahr, John Marshall and Caleb Jones all opposed the bill.  Representatives Todd Richardson, Joe Don McGaugh, Stanley Cox, Kevin Austin, Jason Smith, Bill White, Majority Floor Leader John Diehl and Speaker Tim Jones, all attorneys, voted to support the bill.

To contact Collin Reischman, email, or via Twitter at @Collin_MOTimes.