Senators debate medical malpractice liability

Missouri senators on Tuesday were considering legislation that would reinstate a cap on certain damages in medical malpractice lawsuits that was struck down by the state Supreme Court last year.

Setting an upper limit of $350,000 for noneconomic damages was a significant piece of Missouri Republicans’ efforts in 2005 to curb liability lawsuits. Before then, Missouri had an inflation-adjusted cap of $579,000 for noneconomic damages against each defendant for each act of negligence.

The state Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision this past July that the law violated the constitutional right to a jury trial. The court’s majority pointed to the Missouri Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which states “the right of a trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate.” Because Missourians had a common-law right to seek damages for medical malpractice claims when the constitution was enacted in 1820, the court concluded any limit on damages restricting the jury’s fact-finding role would violate the right to a trial by jury.

To avoid the constitutional concern, the Legislature has proposed a measure that would eliminate a common-law right to file a lawsuit over health care services. Instead, it would put in place a new statutory right to sue, while the previous noneconomic damages cap of $350,000 would remain in place.

Senators began debating the legislation Tuesday afternoon, and the discussion was continuing into the evening hours. Earlier this year, the state House endorsed the medical malpractice legislation on a 93-62 vote.

Missouri lawmakers have until May 17 to approve new legislation before their mandatory adjournment.


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