On May 7, 2015, Governor Jay Nixon signed Senate Bill 239 into law and reinstated damage caps for Missouri medical malpractice cases. While Missouri law previously limited damages in wrongful death actions, healthcare providers faced limitless verdicts in all other medical malpractice lawsuits. Not anymore.
Under the new law, plaintiffs cannot recover more than $400,000 for non-economic damages in medical malpractice actions. If the case involves claims of catastrophic personal injury or wrongful death, the cap is increased to $700,000. The term “catastrophic personal injury” is defined by statute to include cases of quadriplegia, paraplegia, loss of 2 or more limbs, brain injuries involving permanent cognitive impairment, irreversible major organ failure, or severe vision loss.
The caps apply to all non-economic damages, including claims of pain, suffering, mental anguish, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, loss of capacity to enjoy life, and loss of consortium—often referred to collectively as “pain and suffering” damages. The caps do not apply to economic damages, such as the cost of medical bills, lost wages, or loss of future earnings. Nor do they limit punitive damages, which are available in cases of willful, wanton, or malicious misconduct. Both caps will increase at a rate of 1.7% per year.
This is not the first time that Missouri lawmakers have attempted to cap non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. Most recently, in 2005, former Governor Matt Blunt signed a similar law that provided for a $350,000 non-economic damages cap in medical malpractice cases. That legislation, like the current legislation, was designed to protect Missouri’s healthcare providers who were vulnerable to limitless judgments and ever-increasing malpractice insurance premiums. Without caps, physicians and other providers were motivated to relocate their medical practices to other states.
Despite the Legislature’s intent, the 2005 law only provided temporary relief to Missouri’s healthcare providers. In 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court declared the caps were unconstitutional as applied to all malpractice cases except for wrongful death, on the grounds that the caps violated a plaintiff’s constitutional right to trial by jury for common law causes of action. In order to address the constitutional concerns that invalidated the 2005 legislation, the new law provides that medical malpractice actions are now statutory causes of action rather than common law causes of action. Legislators believe that this modification will allow the legislation to survive any court challenges to its constitutionality.
The new law brings an end to years of bipartisan debate on Tort Reform and is a victory for Missouri’s healthcare providers.
The full text of Senate Bill 239 is available here.