Just a few short years ago, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the wrongful death damage cap of $350,000 in noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases. Sanders v. Ahmed, 364 S.W.3d 195 (Mo. 2012). The Court found that the Missouri legislature’s sweeping 2005 “Tort Reform” bill met constitutional muster in this context because it was modifying a statutory provision that was created in 1855, years after the Missouri constitution was adopted in 1820. As such, the legislature was free to change the scope of the statute as it saw fit.
Shortly after the Sanders ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court largely abrogated the medical malpractice damage cap in other medical negligence cases that were based on common law principles. Watts v. Cox Medical Centers, 376 S.W. 3d 633 (Mo. 2012). The court found its justification in the Missouri Constitution’s guarantee of a “right of trial by jury”. The court interpreted this guarantee to bar the legislature from imposing limits on common law claims that existed when the Missouri Constitution was adopted in 1820.
Although a cursory reading of these two cases, decided within months of each other, shows a logical basis for the seemingly inequitable results, yet another wrongful death case has been transferred to the Missouri Supreme Court for clarification. In Dodson et al. v. Mercy Hospitals East Community et al., ED100952, the Eastern District Court of Appeals transferred the appeal of a $10.8 million wrongful death verdict which contained a non-economic damages component of $9 million. Despite the Eastern District’s rejection of any argument that Watts somehow overruled Sanders, the court was concerned about possible violation of state and federal equal protection guarantees.
This transfer is even more intriguing in light of the new Missouri noneconomic damage caps that are set to begin on August 28, 2015. This bill was intended to “restore” a version of the 2005 caps, but with changes that would allow the bill to withstand judicial scrutiny. The new caps will have a two-tiered system. The first tier of damage caps is $400,000, which would apply to a typical medical negligence case. In cases that are either “catastrophic” or led to a patient’s death (wrongful death actions), the cap rises to $700,000. In addition, the caps would grow by 1.7% each year.
The Missouri Supreme Court’s decision in Dodson will soon provide additional clarity regarding the legislature’s right to modify causes of action created by statute. Although it may not give much guidance as to the constitutionality of the new damage caps, we can all be assured that a new case will come along that will again allow the court to tackle this hotly contested issue.