Missouri Supreme Court Considering Non-Economic Damage Caps in Medical Malpractice Cases

The cost of Missouri medical malpractice insurance is at stake as the state’s supreme court is considering whether or not its non-economic damage cap is constitutional. Those opposed to the non-economic damage cap say that it deprives plaintiffs of their due process in the courts as well as due compensation; defenders of the non-economic damage cap say that it keeps Missouri medical malpractice insurance premiums low for the state’s healthcare workers.

Since its enactment in 2005, Missouri’s $350,000 non-economic damage cap on medical malpractice jury verdicts has had a deflationary effect on medical malpractice insurance premiums. According to the Medical Liability Monitor’s Annual Rate Survey data, the high base rate premiums for an OB/Gyn practicing in Missouri fell from $132,314 in 2005 to a high base rate of $93,575 in 2011.

According to the 2005 law, in addition to the creation of the non-economic damage cap, jurors may not be told of the limit when it comes time for deliberations. If the jury verdict is in excess of the $350,000 cap on non-economic damages, the court will adjust the award to be in compliance with the non-economic damage cap. Also per the 2005 law, punitive damages can only be awarded should it be determined that the healthcare professional acted in a willful, wanton and malicious way. In other words, the physician intentionally inflicted harm on the patient.

The case currently challenging the cap on non-economic damages in Missouri involves a child born with cerebral palsy. The child’s mother claims that the cerebral palsy was caused by her physician’s failure to react to fetal distress during delivery. The physicians lack of action, according to the plaintiff, caused catastrophic and disabling brain injuries.

Last year, a jury awarded the plaintiff $4.8 million, including $1.45 million in non-economic damages. After the jury’s declaration, the court reduced the amount of the non-economic damage award to $350,000, in keeping with the cap on non-economic damages.

According to the plaintiff, the non-economic damage cap interfered with the child’s right to a jury trial, violated the state’s constitutional separation of powers and unfairly gives special protection to healthcare workers.

Non-economic damage caps have been recently overturned in Illinois and Georgia; Missouri’s neighbor Kansas is currently waiting for a verdict in a similar case from its supreme court.

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