In a victory for consumers, the Missouri Supreme Court this week threw out a state law capping non-economic losses for victims of medical malpractice. The 2005 tort reform law that limited jury awards for pain and suffering to $350,000 was found to be in violation of Missouri residents’ constitutional right to a jury trial.
“This is a good day for all people in Missouri and elsewhere who believe in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights,” says Tim Dollar, an attorney in Kansas City and the president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys.
The ruling came about from a tragic 2006 birth in which a child suffered brain damage due to a delayed C-section. The mother sued, and was awarded $5 million, $1.45 million of that in non-economic “pain and suffering” damages. The child, now five years old, cannot walk or feed himself, but nevertheless according to Missouri law the non-economic portion of the award was reduced to $350,000.
Thanks to the court decision, the family will receive the whole $5 million. Overturning a previous state Supreme Court ruling, the judges said in a 4-3 decision that the damage cap was an infringement on patients’ rights to have their day in court.
“The Supreme Court examined the issue in light of the Missouri Constitution that guarantees the right to jury trial,” Dollar explains. “They ruled that this statute is unconstitutional because in requiring the reductions, it eliminates an individual like this child’s right to a full jury trial.”
Particularly hurt by the now-defunct law were children, the elderly and the disabled, who were severely limited in the amounts of compensation they could receive because they don’t generally work, and therefore don’t cause themselves or their families “economic harm” by being crippled or killed, beyond the medical bills themselves. In effect the Missouri legislature was saying that the lives of the unemployed, even children, are worth only $350,000.
The court ruling includes only living plaintiffs and does not extend to lawsuits brought when patients die as a result of medical malpractice.
Attack on Enumerated Rights
Tort reform is a measure pushed in states across the nation as well as in the federal government by anti-consumer interests in an effort to limit the money that plaintiffs can collect from doctors that kill and injure their patients. Although limits to pain and suffering awards are presented as a way to keep malpractice premiums lower and therefore bring down the cost of health care overall, a recent study showed that tort reform does not actually reduce medical costs. What it does do is limit victims’ access to the courts and ability to be compensated for the harm that has been done to them.
“That harm is irreplaceable,” says Dollar. “It would be as though some doctor committed a mistake that left someone in a wheelchair for the rest of their life, and the legislature is saying, ‘Here, we’re going to pay you for the cost of the wheelchair, and good luck with that.’”
But the consequences of so-called tort reform extend beyond the individual. For one thing, damage caps remove a financial disincentive for doctors to make mistakes. No ethical doctor would purposely kill a patient, of course, but the threat of a multimillion dollar lawsuit is a great reminder to take all proper precautions and not let inattention or oversight lead to disastrous results.
What’s more, the right to a jury trial is enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, right up there with all the other freedoms that American citizens are guaranteed. “If we permit the legislature to encroach upon something so fundamental, something that has been in our federal Constitution since the beginning, then we expose all of us to the ease with which a legislature can impose upon our other cherished rights,” Dollar says. “That’s an enumerated right and it has the same force as the other rights, including speech, religion and right to bear arms.”
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