Missouri Supreme Court Overturns Limits on Medical Malpractice Victims’ Right to Recover Damages

In a decisional gem, a divided Missouri Supreme Court struck a blow for civil justice in Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Center.  The high court handed down its decision on July 31, 2012.  The decision holds that a 2005 statute placing a $350,000 “cap,” which limits non-economic damages for victims of medical malpractice, impermissibly limits a jury’s right to award damages to injury victims.  The Court also held that the statutory damages “cap” violates the Missouri Constitution, which guarantees an “inviolate right” to trial by jury.  For years, commentators have noted that the Court should examine the 2005 special legislation limiting damages that may be recovered from health care providers.  Many of those commentators have noted that advantages like the non-economic damages “cap” in favor of health care providers are not enjoyed by other industries or professions.

Before the Watts decision, experts in medical malpractice litigation noted that case filings were down as the result of the statutory limitation on non-economic damages.  Now, however, injured children, homemakers, the elderly and other medical malpractice victims without large wage losses and medical expense claims will be able to recover for their injuries without fear of courts reducing their jury award for non-economic damages to $350,000.  Watts was just such a case.  In Watts, the Missouri Supreme Court held that the trial court could not reduce a jury award to a brain injured infant from $1.747 million to $350,000.