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Medical malpractice damage caps upheld by state Supreme Court

2015 law limits non-economic damages to $400,000 for personal injury and $700,000 for catastrophic injury

Limits on the amount of damages someone can recover in medical malpractice cases for pain and suffering do not violate Missouri’s constitution, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday. 

In a 5-1 decision, the court determined that the legislature had the authority to enact a 2015 law limiting non-economic damages to $400,000 for personal injury and $700,000 for catastrophic personal injury.

The court in 2012 deemed a similar law imposing a flat $350,000 limit on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases unconstitutional. It said the limits violated the right to a jury trial that had existed under common law when Missouri’s first constitution was adopted in 1820.

But in approving the 2015 caps, the legislature repealed the common-law medical malpractice cause of action and replaced it with a statutory medical negligence action.

The law was approved by the Republican-dominated House and Senate with only a handful of votes in opposition and signed by then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat. 

“Because a medical negligence action is a statutorily created cause of action, the General Assembly had the legislative authority to enact statutory non-economic damage caps,” the decision said. 

Brett Emison, past president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said the court ignored past precedent to permit 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.”

The court’s ruling puts all constitutional rights in jeopardy, Emison said, conceivably granting permission for the state legislature to abolish common law protections for things like Second Amendment gun rights or religious freedom protections. 

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

The case stemmed from a 2017 lawsuit filed by Maria del Carmen Ordinola Valaquez against multiple physicians and University Physician Associates. 

She alleged negligence related to the delivery of her child and postpartum care. A jury awarded her $300,000 in past non-economic damages and $700,000 in future non-economic damages.

The physicians asked the circuit court to reduce the non-economic damages award in compliance with the 2015 law. The court reduced her non-economic damages award to $748,828, and she appealed the decision. 

This article by Jason Hancock is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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