Missouri caps damages in medical malpractice cases


Missouri governor Jay Nixon has signed into law legislation that will place caps on the amount of some damage awards in medical malpractice cases.

The new law does not mark the first time the state has attempted to limit damages in medical malpractice cases, though, as the Missouri Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the state’s previous law on such damages three years ago.

The Democratic governor signed into law the measure, Senate Bill 239, while at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Jefferson City. A bipartisan coalition supported the measure in both houses of the Legislature, as it passed the state Senate in a 28-2 vote in March and then the House in a 125-27 vote in April. Many Democrats who had opposed previous versions of the bill supported the measure that ultimately passed because it included higher limits and 1.7 percent annual increases to those limits.

The new caps will stand at $400,000 for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering in the bulk of medial malpractice cases, and $700,000 for so-called catastrophic cases that include cases involving paralysis, loss of vision and brain injury. In addition, the existing cap on wrongful death cases will double from $350,000 to $700,000.

“While the new law may seem appealing and reasonable to some hospitals, doctors’ groups and politicians concerned with costs, it is not fair to the patients who have already suffered serious personal injuries due to a physician’s actions,” said Charles James, a prominent attorney in St. Peters, Missouri, whose firm specializes in medical malpractice cases. “And with limits to damages, some doctors or hospitals could avoid meaningful consequences for their actions and become repeat offenders.”

In July 2012, the state Supreme Court invalidated the previous caps that had been on the books since 2005, ruling that its flat $350,000 limit on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases was unconstitutional. The high court’s position was that the old restrictions on damages violated a person’s right to a jury trial under common law, which was included in Missouri’s first constitution in 1820.

Lawmakers who backed the new law believe that it will pass legal muster with the state’s high court because the medical malpractice caps are a statutory and not a common law cause of action.

“The state Supreme Court pointed out with good reason that the 2005 law violated a person’s right to a jury trial, which is where the decision should rest of how much compensation an injured party should receive,” James said. “That fact has not changed, even as lawmakers have changed the monetary figures in the recently enacted law.” 

Missouri, Law, Jay Nixon, US, Legislation