Missouri Strikes Down Caps on Damages in Medical Malpractice Cases

The Missouri Supreme Court recently struck down the 2005 tort reform law which limited jury awards for pain and suffering to $350,000. The ruling was held to be in violation of Missouri’s long held right to a jury trial. Under Missouri’s 2005 tort reform law, if you were injured or killed as the result of medical malpractice, the most you or your family could receive for your pain and suffering was $350,000.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the cap on damages prevented patients’ from having their day in court. This ruling was the result of a 4-3 decision in which the court stated capping damages in medical malpractice cases “infringes on the jury’s constitutionally protected purpose of determining the amount of damages sustained by an injured party”. Why have a constitutionally guaranteed trial by jury if someone else can change the jury’s decision? More importantly, who will benefit from the invasion of the trial?

The 2005 tort reform law was signed into being by then governor Matt Blunt. The law which capped pain and suffering damages in Missouri at $350,000, was touted as a way to reduce health care costs by reducing lawsuits against doctors. Proponents of the law stated that health care premiums would be reduced if doctors did not have to pay so much for malpractice insurance due to the pre-2005 yearly average in Missourr of 847 medical malpractice lawsuits. Proponents figured they would reduce everyone’s premiums by prohibiting those injured or killed by a doctor from receiving too much money. The law decided that if a doctor or hospital took your life or left you crippled through their negligent acts, they only had to reimburse you $350,000 for your pain and suffering or the life of a lost loved one.

The 2005 medical damages cap unfairly targeted children, the elder population and the disabled, because they rarely had lost wages or future earnings, and were more likely to receive money for pain and suffering only. In addition, doctors and hospitals were allowed to ramp up production at the expense of proper training, systems and procedures. No matter how the medical provider hurt or killed you, they were only on the hook for $350,000 for your pain and suffering or the life of a family member.

The Missouri Supreme Court’s decision arose from a Greene County case filed by Deborah Watts. Deborah Watts’ son was born at Cox Hospital in Springfield Missouri with catastrophic brain injuries as the result of a delayed C-Section. The jury awarded Deborah’s son $5 million, $1.45 million of the award was for his lifetime of pain and suffering to come. However, under the 2005 tort reform law, this $1.45 million dollars was reduced to $350,000. The Missouri Supreme Court has finally stated this backroom reduction of the award prevented Missouri residents’ from their right to a jury trial. Thanks to the Missouri Supreme Court, Deborah and her son will receive the full $5 million to assist with their future.

While the 2005 tort reform law reduced the average number of medical malpractice lawsuits from 847 to 643, health insurance premiums were not impacted. The large insurance corporations were the ones enjoyed the benefit and the rest of us faced the burden. More importantly, numerous individuals who were injured or killed through a medical error went without the proper reimbursement they deserved.

The reality of the 2005 caps can be seen in the case of Linda McDougal. Linda was a 46 year old woman devastated with the diagnosis of breast cancer in 2002. The doctors stated that due to the aggressive form of the cancer, they recommended Linda have both of her breasts removed. She trusted her doctors and was sedated. When she awoke, she was informed by her medical doctor that she did not have cancer. She was informed she never had cancer. Instead, her biopsy results had been switched by two of her treating physicians with those of another patient. With the 2005 tort reform law, victims in similar wrongful diagnosis situations were prevented from obtaining more than $350,000 if they lacked any economic damages, such as lost wages.

According to the Institute of Medicine’s 1999 study of preventable medical errors, they estimated that 98,000 or more people die yearly as a result of these preventable tragedies. In addition, the Institute of Medicine’s study stated these 98,000 deaths cost us more than $29 billion. If listed with the CDC, this would be the 6th leading cause of death in the US.

The cold reality was that the State of Missouri valued all of the pain, suffering, and death an individual could endure at $350,000, as long as it was the result of medical malpractice. All passed in the guise of savings to us all and the promise of better care. However, this effort was deemed to invade our longstanding right to a trail by jury and prohibited recently by the Missouri Supreme Court.

For information about your rights following a medical error injury, contact a Missouri medical malpractice lawyer.

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