The Missouri Supreme Court has ended the debate over the constitutionality of statutory caps on non-economic damages in common law causes of action, including medical malpractice claims for personal injury. In a 4-3 decision returned on July 31, 2012, the court in Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers found that the right to a jury trial includes the plaintiff’s right to have both the facts and the resultant damages decided by a jury. Therefore, the court held that to impose the statutory cap set forth in Missouri statute Section 538.210 “necessarily and unavoidably violates the state constitutional right to trial by jury.” As a result, that portion of the tort reform legislation adopted by the Missouri General Assembly in 2005 is no longer valid.

Our Insight.  Your Advantage.  The litigation landscape for medical malpractice claims has shifted again in Missouri. As of July 31, 2012, no non-economic damage caps apply to medical malpractice cases for personal injury, although it appears that the $350,000 cap on non-economic damages will remain for wrongful death cases and other statutorily based claims. The court did not address or discuss the retroactive application of the decision. Therefore, final judgments that include caps will remain unchanged. All open cases and cases that have not been filed will not be subject to caps on non-economic damages.

Although it was not explicitly mentioned in the opinion, the Watts decision may also have an impact on the rare case in which punitive damages are awarded. Section 510.265 limits punitive damages to the greater of $500,000 or five times the net amount of the judgment awarded to the plaintiff against the defendant. Before Watts, the outer limit of any punitive damages award was $350,000, plus economic damages, times five. The punitive damages cap remains, but the non-economic damages component of the equation does not. Therefore, although punitive damages are not common, an award of non-economic damages greater than $350,000 may impact the outer limit of a punitive damages award in Missouri.

Check out the Husch Blackwell alert where you can learn about this important decision.