In Dodson v. Ferrara, Mercy Clinic Heart and Vascular, LLC, the Missouri Supreme Court heard an appeal by both Plaintiffs and Defendants from the circuit court of St. Louis County. The wrongful death action was brought by the family of Shannon Dodson against defendant health care providers, Dr. Robert Ferrara and Mercy Clinic Heart and Vascular, LLC, after Shannon Dodson died from a dissection of her left main coronary artery during a cardiac catheterization. The original jury verdict totaled $1,831,155 for economic damages and $9 million for noneconomic damages. The trial court reduced the noneconomic damages to $350,000, pursuant to Mo.Rev.Stat. §538.210.
On appeal, Plaintiffs argued that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages does not apply in wrongful death cases under Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Ctr., 376 S.W. 3d 633 (Mo. banc 2012), and that the cap violated constitutional rights of the right to trial by jury, equal protection or separation of powers provisions under both the Missouri and United States Constitutions. In holding the noneconomic damages cap in Mo.Rev.Stat. §538.210 is constitutional, as applied in wrongful death cases, the Missouri Supreme Court discussed the distinction between a common law claim for personal injury and a statutory claim for wrongful death.
The Court majority reasoned that Watts was not controlling because the personal injury claim asserted by plaintiff in Watts was recognized at common law and “not subject to legislative limits on damages” in 1820. Thus, in Watts, the statutory cap did violate right to trial by jury in the medical malpractice actions alleging common law personal injury claims. But in Dodson, the Plaintiffs brought a claim for wrongful death, which was not a claim recognized at common law in 1820 in Missouri, but was instead a statutory creation subject to statutory caps and limitations. See Sanders v. Ahmed, 364 S.W.3d 195 (Mo. banc 2012).
The Missouri Supreme Court also held that the statutory cap does not violate equal protection, because the damages cap in Mo.Rev.Stat. §538.210 has been found to be rationally related a legitimate state interest (i.e. “reduce perceived rising medical malpractice premiums and prevent physicians from leaving ‘high risk’ medical fields”). See also Adams v. Children’s Mercy Hospital, 832 S.W.2d 898 (Mo. banc 1992). Moreover, the statutory cap does not violate the separation of powers as required by Article II, section 1 of the Missouri Constitution, because the legislature created and had the authority to create the wrongful death cause of action and the cap does not “impinge on the judicial power of remitter.”
The dissenting judges questioned whether the statutory damages cap was, in fact, rationally related to a legitimate interest, and would have held that the constitutional right to a jury trial includes statutory wrongful death actions, due to the analogous nature of a wrongful death claim to those recognized at common law.
In March of 2015, BSCR discussed the possibility of statutory caps making a comeback through Senate Bill No. 239. BSCR then informed readers, in May of 2015, that both the Senate and House Bill had passed, which limited non-economic damages in medical negligence claims to $350,000. This reflects and supports the Dodson Court’s decision. However, while non-economic damages for wrongful death claims may be capped and constitutional today, there is always the possibility that future legislation could once again alter the cap landscape.
A summary of the Dodson case can also be found here.