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Doctor errors capped by malpractice caps in Missouri House bill

In 2012 the Supreme Court of Missouri declared the state's $350,000 cap of jury awards for "pain and suffering" in medical malpractice cases unconstitutional, saying the law violates a patient's right to a jury trial. The Court held that constitutionally only juries can declare the amount of damages. After that decision, there have been no caps on damages awards in medical malpractice cases in Missouri. Such awards compensate for doctor errors, and negligence by hospitals and other healthcare workers.

Non-economic damages are for victims' pain, suffering and loss of life's normal pleasures. Economic damages, which are limited in only a few states, pertain to compensation for lost earnings, lost earning capacity, medical expenses and out-of-pocket expenses. If malpractice causes permanent disability to someone with a steady earnings history, economic damages to repay her for the lost earnings for the rest of her life could be substantial.

On the other hand, for the poor, disabled, children and the aged, the ban on pain and suffering could result in unjustly low remuneration for severe injury. Consumer supporters of those groups will be likely opposed to a bill passed by the Missouri House just recently to once again limit damages in medical malpractice lawsuits at $350,000. Generally, the only way to get around a ruling based on constitutional principles would be to pass a constitutional amendment but that has not been done.

It's thus unknown how legislators intend to make this limitation pass constitutional muster. The bill is not law and must be reviewed and passed by the Senate first. Then it must be signed by the Governor before it becomes law. If passed and signed by the Governor, it would still have to survive court review by the Supreme Court of Missouri.

Although doctors and medical groups support the caps and even threaten to leave Missouri if caps are not reinstated, there is virtually no evidence that they resulted in lower medical malpractice insurance premiums. Opponents of the caps claim that doctor errors and hospital negligence will tend to increase unbridled with caps in place. They also point to severely incapacitated victims of medical malpractice being unable to survive in future years without sufficient funds for ongoing services.

Source: St. Louis Post Dispatch, Missouri House approves limits on jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, Marie French, March 5, 2014

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