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Missouri Supreme Court rules legislature can limit non-economic damages

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Supreme Court of Missouri upheld the legislature’s authority to limit non-economic damages in medical negligence cases Thursday, a decision some warned could have drastic consequences. 

The law in question was a measure enacted in 2015 replacing common law causes of action for medical negligence with statutory actions and limiting these damages to $400,000 for personal injuries and $700,000 for injuries resulting in long-term disability or hampering the patient’s ability to perform work. The court ruled 5-1 that the change was within the purview of the state constitution. 

“It is undisputed that the General Assembly possesses the authority to abolish common law causes of action,” the opinion said.

The case was filed by a woman who sued University Physician Associates and several of its doctors for medical negligence in 2017 over the delivery of her child, alleging the physicians’ negligence led to a myriad of medical issues. A jury sided with the plaintiff, granting $30,000 in past economic damages in addition to $300,000 in past non-economic damages and $700,000 in future non-economic damages. 

The defendants appealed to the Jackson County Circuit Court, seeking to reduce the non-economic damages by pointing to the statutory caps. The non-economic damages were reduced to nearly $749,000 based on a 2019 measure that established a cost of living escalator for the cap on a case-by-case basis, and the plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court affirmed the decision Thursday, finding the state’s statutory caps did not violate the right to a trial by jury due to medical negligence’s status as a statutorily created cause of action. 

Judge George Draper III, the sole dissenting voice, argued the verdict granted the General Assembly power to alter the right to a trial by jury. Draper recalled a decision handed down nearly a decade ago deeming a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages an unconstitutional violation of common law negligence actions. 

“Today, my apprehension has become a reality with the principal opinion’s tolerance of the legislature’s form over substance maneuvering to deprive Missouri citizens of their right to trial by jury guaranteed by article I, section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution,” Draper wrote in his dissenting opinion. “This court’s holding provides the legislature with unconstitutional carte blanche to limit the constitutional right to trial by jury through hostile legislation.”

Brett Emison, past president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys (MATA), echoed Draper’s opinion. Emison said the decision to circumvent the previous decision could lead to the legislative revocation of other common law practices.  

“The court, however, ignored this precedent in permitting the legislature to erase centuries-old common law and replace it with a statute that fundamentally infringes on the right to trial as it was provided in Missouri’s constitution in 1820,” Emison said. “This ruling could permit a future legislature to abolish common law protections of Second Amendment rights and constitutionally infringe on those rights by mere statute. Or they may decide to infringe on religious or free speech protections.” 

“This sets a dangerous precedent for stripping away the constitutional rights of all Missourians,” he continued. 

MATA pointed to Texas’ $250,000 cap on most negligence cases, making it difficult to pursue malpractice suits. A bill that would have imposed the same cap on the federal level failed to pass Congress in 2017. 

The high court also handed down its decision on Medicaid expansion Thursday, remanding the issue to the Cole County Circuit Court to determine how the expansion will be implemented.