Missouri Supreme Court overturns 2005 cap on liability lawsuits

Tuesday, July 31, 2012 | 1:58 p.m. CDT; updated 4:43 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 31, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a key plank of a Republican-backed law limiting the money people can win in medical malpractice lawsuits.

In a 4-3 decision, the high court said the 2005 Missouri law violated the right to a jury trial granted by the state constitution by capping noneconomic damages at $350,000 in lawsuits alleging that health care providers were at fault for injuries or deaths.

The monetary limit had been the focal point of a "tort reform" law championed by the Republican-led Legislature and enacted by then-Gov. Matt Blunt as a means of reining in medical malpractice premiums for doctors and, hopefully, improving the availability of health care. Plaintiffs' attorneys, who had opposed the law, had warned it could leave injured, ill and disabled residents without enough money to compensate them for their dramatically altered lifestyles.

"Everyone who believes in the constitution should be thrilled with this decision today," said Kansas City attorney Tim Dollar, president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys.

Blunt said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that the Supreme Court ruling undermines a key provision of the 2005 law, which was considered one of his primary accomplishments during his four years in office.

"It's devastating news, quite frankly, for health-care providers and patients and job creators in the state," said Blunt, who now lives in Virginia and is president of the American Automotive Policy Council.

Before 2005, Missouri had an inflation-adjusted cap of $579,000 for noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, in medical malpractice cases. The 2005 law lowered that to a flat $350,000 and applied the cap to the total amount owed by all defendants rather than against each defendant for each act of negligence as had been permitted under the old law.

The Supreme Court's majority pointed to the Bill of Rights of the Missouri Constitution, which states "that the right of a trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate." The court wrote that the monetary cap "infringes on the jury's constitutionally protected purpose of determining the amount of damages sustained by an injured party."

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