JEFFERSON CITY — Seeking to sidestep a court ruling, the Missouri House endorsed legislation Wednesday that attempts to reinstate limits on the amount of money people can receive from medical malpractice lawsuits.
The bill given initial approval seeks to re-impose a $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages in medical practice cases that was struck down by Missouri Supreme Court in 2012.
The court ruled that a 2005 Missouri law imposing the financial limit violated a right to a jury trial that it said had been embedded in the Missouri Constitution since in 1820. The legislation attempts to get around that by declaring that medical practice claims are not covered through common law that existed when the constitution was adopted and instead are governed by state laws.
A similar measure passed the Republican-led House last year but stalled in the Senate, which also is controlled by Republicans. A second House vote is needed to send this year's measure to the Senate.
Supporters of the lawsuit limits note that they only affect noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, and do not restrict the amount of money people can be awarded for medical costs or lost wages because they can no longer work. They contend the caps are necessary to hold down the cost of malpractice insurance for physicians and, ultimately, to discourage doctors from moving to other states.
"If you create an environment that is punitive and onerous and threatening, if I were a young doctor now and not having a lot of ties to the state, I'd be looking for an alternative," said Rep. Keith Frederick, a Republican from Rolla who is an orthopedic surgeon.
Republican Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones has made reinstatement of the limits a priority for the 2014 session.
Yet several Republicans joined Democrats in voicing opposition to the legislation during House debate.
Rep. Jeff Grisamore, R-Lee's Summit, called it "flat out immoral" to limit medical malpractice victims to $350,000 of noneconomic damages.
Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Blue Springs, said the lawsuit limits ran contrary to her belief in "the sanctity of human life."
"I believe you cannot place a price tag on anyone," she said. "If we put back caps in place, we're saying that a life is not worth more than $350,000 or $500,000 or whatever we decide."
Missouri previously had an inflation-adjusted cap of $579,000 for noneconomic damages. 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 lower medical malpractice caps had been the centerpiece of a highly touted Republican effort to curb liability lawsuits that was signed by then-Gov. Matt Blunt.
The Supreme Court struck down the limits in a 4-3 decision that reversed its own precedent set two decades earlier. The 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 said that when the state's first constitution was enacted in 1820, Missourians had a common law right to seek damages for medical malpractice claims. Therefore, it said, "any limit on damages that restricts the jury's fact-finding role violates the constitutional right to trial by jury."