On July 31, 2012, the Supreme Court of Missouri handed a significant victory to plaintiffs seeking damages in medical malpractice cases. In Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers, the court ruled that Missouri’s statutory cap on non-economic damages was unconstitutional because this cap violated a citizen’s constitutional right to a trial by jury.
A Missouri mother filed a medical malpractice action against a hospital and its associated physicians, claiming that their negligent medical services caused her newborn son to suffer catastrophic brain injuries. The jury awarded the mother $1.45 million in non-economic damages. Pursuant to the statutory cap, however, the trial judge reduced that amount to $350,000.
The jury also awarded the plaintiff $3.371 million in future medical damages. The trial judge allowed the hospital and physicians to pay one-half of the future damages in one lump sum and the other one-half over 50 years with the statutorily required interest rate of 0.26 percent.
In finding the statutory cap unconstitutional, the court wrote that non-economic damages must be determined by juries. The right to a jury trial cannot remain “inviolate” as required by the Missouri constitution if a medical malpractice plaintiff remain is deprived of a jury assigning damages based on the facts of a case.
Additionally, the court found that the interest-based formula for payment future damages would not ensure that the baby’s future medical bills would be covered because the formula did not factor in healthcare inflation. As a result of this decision, the trial judge must enter a new and proper payment schedule.
This decision overruled a 1992 Missouri Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of the medical malpractice statutory cap, saying that the 1992 decision was based on flawed reasoning. The Watts decision is line with four other states that also concluded that any limit on non-economic damages violates the constitutional right to trial by jury.
Dr. Michael M. Wilson is an attorney and a physician who earned his undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his legal and medical degrees from Georgetown University. He has focused in the area of medical malpractice for more than three decades and secured more than $100 million in settlements and verdicts on behalf of clients throughout the country. He is admitted to practice in the District of Columbia and New York as well as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Supreme Court. He is listed in America’s Top 100 High Stakes Litigators.