UPDATE: Missouri House panel considers medical liability limits

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 | 5:20 p.m. CST; updated 9:49 a.m. CST, Friday, February 15, 2013

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri doctors urged a state House committee Wednesday to reinstate liability limits for medical malpractice cases after the state Supreme Court struck down an existing cap.

An upper limit of $350,000 for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering was a major piece of Republicans' efforts in 2005 to curb liability lawsuits. Before then, Missouri had an inflation-adjusted cap of $579,000 for noneconomic damages against each defendant for each act of negligence.

Physicians practicing different types of medicine praised the 2005 law and argued that its damages cap has helped control malpractice insurance premiums during a hearing Wednesday before a House health care committee. Republican legislative leaders have said restoring the damages cap is needed to control health care costs and to keep doctors in Missouri.

James Crane, an obstetrician and the CEO of Washington University Physicians, said unlimited noneconomic damages are likely to harm the availability and affordability of health care in Missouri. He said the practice he leads has been required to set aside additional reserves after the high court's ruling.

The Missouri Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, ruled this past July that the 2005 law was unconstitutional. The court's majority pointed to the Missouri Constitution's Bill of Rights, which states "the right of a trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate." Because Missouri residents had a common-law right to seek damages for medical malpractice claims when the constitution was enacted in 1820, the court concluded any limit on damages that restricts the jury's fact-finding role violates the constitutional right to trial by jury.

Lawmakers are proposing a measure that would eliminate the common-law right to file a lawsuit over health care services while replacing it with a statutory right to sue. The previous noneconomic damages cap of $350,000 would remain. The House legislation is sponsored by Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield. The Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee already has considered a similar measure and a proposed constitutional amendment.

Opponents of limiting noneconomic damages contend the right to a jury trial is a lynchpin for basic liberties and must be protected.

Jay Benson, an attorney from Kirksville, said the Supreme Court's decision is a victory for those who support the constitution. He said people have suffered true harm in order to receive noneconomic damages. He said the legislature should not infringe upon rights protected by the Bill of Rights.

Benson, who serves on the board for the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said other elements from the 2005 law were not affected by the court ruling and remain. Among those pieces are restrictions on where lawsuits can be filed and changes to how interest is calculated on judgments.

Last year, the state Supreme Court in neighboring Kansas upheld its $250,000 limit on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases.

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