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Opposing Verdicts on Medical Malpractice Damages Cap in Missouri

The Missouri Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings recently that will affect the compensation available to some medical malpractice victims and their families. While both cases centered on Missouri’s cap on damages in medical malpractice cases, their outcomes were very different.

At issue in both cases was a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages for medical malpractice lawsuits in Missouri. Non-economic damages are awarded for non-monetary harms such as pain and suffering, emotional distress or loss of companionship.

Patient’s Survival a Key Factor

One of the cases involved a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Ronald Sanders, whose wife suffered a debilitating seizure and later died after her neurologist changed her medication. At trial, a jury awarded Sanders $9.2 million in non-economic damages, but the award was reduced to $350,000 to comply with the cap. On appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the decision to reduce the damages.

The other case was brought by Deborah Watts on behalf of her son, who was born with catastrophic brain injuries that left him permanently disabled. Watts contends that the injuries were caused by negligent medical care. At trial, a jury awarded Watts with $1.45 million in non-economic damages, but, as in the Sanders case, the award was reduced to the $350,000 permitted by state law. Watts appealed her case, claiming that the cap on damages violated the Missouri state constitution. In this case, however, the Supreme Court agreed and reinstated the initial award.

Different Sources of Law Led to Different Results

The legal system in Missouri and the rest of the U.S. is made up of two different types of laws: statutes and common law. The distinction between them was central to the differing outcomes in the recent medical malpractice cases.

Statutes, or written laws, are created and modified through the legislative process. Common law, on the other hand, is developed gradually by courts and judges as they decide cases over an extended period of time. American common law, which has its roots in the system used in England before the Revolutionary War, is based on the notion that similar cases should have similar outcomes.

Under common law, patients who are injured by medical negligence are permitted to sue to recover damages in court. However, because people’s legal claims were extinguished when they died, the common law system did not provide a way to sue over the death of a loved one. Thus, while a doctor could be liable for injuring a patient, the same was not true if the patient died. To address this situation, legislators in Missouri and other states passed statutes establishing the rights of surviving family members to sue for wrongful death.

In the Sanders case, the Missouri Supreme Court reasoned that because state legislators created the right to sue for wrongful death, they also had the right to place limits on the damages that could be awarded. In contrast, because the Watts injury case was based in common law rather than statute, the Court found that state legislators lacked the authority to cap damages. Instead, the court reasoned, an award of damages must be determined by the jury as established by the Missouri Constitution.

Impact on Future Cases

While the long-term consequences of these controversial decisions remain to be seen, people suffering nonfatal injuries caused by medical malpractice in Missouri now have a much higher potential to recover damages for non-economic losses like pain and suffering or loss of enjoyment in life. The potential recovery for wrongful death claimants, meanwhile, remains largely unchanged. To learn more about seeking compensation for medical malpractice in Missouri, contact an experienced personal injury lawyer.

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