Limits on Medical Malpractice Awards Constitutional? Missouri Supreme Court Signals .... Not Constitutional
As many Missouri personal injury victims and Missouri injury attorneys know, since August 2005 Missouri tort "reform" was signed into law and gave health care providers special status by limiting Missouri personal injury judgments or money awards against them to $350,000 in non economic damages. In the context of life altering injuries or the needless death of a loved one, $350,000 is an insult to the severely injured victims or their family.
The disparity in our system that the current law forces upon use is best described by Supreme Court Justice Teitelman's words in opining the law is unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the constitution:
"The caps operate on a perverse irony -- those with relatively minor injuries are permitted full recovery, while the most severely injured among us are denied. It is difficult to conceive of the necessity of a health care policy that expressly relies on discrimination against the small number of unfortunate individuals who suffer the most debilitating, painful, lifelong disabilities as a result of medical negligence."
Earlier this year, a case finally made its way to the Missouri Supreme Court, while the case had many issues for the court to decide, one important potential issue was the constitutionality of Missouri medical malpractice caps on non-economic damages. See Missouri injury lawyer blog article: "Missouri Supreme Court Hears Constitutionality of Missouri Medical Malpractice Non-Economic Damage Caps".
The court found that the Missouri non-economic medical malpractice damage caps did not apply to the particular case because the case was initially filed prior to the new law becoming effective. Therefore, the issue of Missouri medical malpractice damage caps could not be addressed as the issue was resolved on the non-retroactive application of the law. See the Missouri Supreme Court opinion in Klotz v. St Anthony's Medical Center.
However, two of the Missouri Supreme Court Judges wrote concurring opinions wherein they addressed the constitutionality of the Missouri medical malpractice damage caps. While these opinions are not binding in this case, this sends a signal as to how the Missouri Supreme Court may rule on a future case wherein the issue will be reached.
Judge Wolff wrote a detailed and brilliant opinion that the caps violate the constitutional right to a trial by Jury. A very short excerpt:
"There is a fundamental flaw in the legislated limits on jury verdicts in section 538.210, which is well known but which is not addressed in today's opinion. And so, I take the liberty to write individually to explain the issue that the court one day will have to confront – that the limit on a jury's determination of damages violates the constitutional guarantee in article I, section 22(a) that "the right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate."
I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the entire concurring opinion written by Judge Wolff. See Klotz v St Anthony's Concurring Opinion of Judge Wolff Starting on Page 29 of the .pdf file.
Additionally, Judge Teitelman concurred with Judge Wolff's opinion that the caps violate the right to a trial by jury and added that it also violates the equal protection clause. Again, I encourage anyone interested in this to read the full opinion. I used one of his excerpts above, additionally, another important excerpt:
"There are two more subtle but no less pernicious side effects to caps in this case. In addition to disadvantaging the most seriously injured, the impacts of the caps will fall disproportionately on the young and economically disadvantaged. Young people, because they will have to live with their injuries and disabilities the longest, bear the brunt of section 538.210. Similarly, those with generally more limited economic prospects -- the poverty-stricken, the physically and mentally disabled, single mothers, wounded veterans, the elderly, and others -- are impacted disproportionately by the arbitrary limits on non-economic damages."
It is a difficult reality when I, as a personal injury lawyer, have to tell potential clients that I cannot pursue a medical negligence case for the death of an elderly parent because the only possible recovery is the damage caps, simply because that person was no longer working and oftentimes the value the law puts on their life is limited to that $350,000. While that is a lot of money in most circumstances, in the context of the value of a life and the expense of bringing a Missouri medical malpractice lawsuit, that the insurance company will fight to the end, that makes the case economically infeasible to pursue due to the time and expense required. The result .... less legal action, less accountability, less fear of neglect begets more neglect and injury.