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ATRA Critical of Missouri High Court Decision Striking Down Legislated Limits on Noneconomic Damages

‘Outlier’ Decision Ignores Precedent But Leaves Open Door for Statutory Reform

CONTACT: Darren McKinney dmckinney@atra.org
202-682-0084
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Washington, DC, August 2, 2012 -- “Very disappointed but not surprised” by yesterday’s Missouri Supreme Court decision that struck down a previously legislated $350,000 limit on noneconomic damages in medical liability lawsuits, American Tort Reform Association president Tiger Joyce today said “the high court’s activist majority has sided with personal injury lawyers over doctors and hospitals.”

“As it did with an infamous 2007 medical-monitoring decision that allowed plaintiffs to collect damages without first demonstrating an injury,” Joyce explained, “Missouri is an outlier again, joining a minority of states in which high court decisions have stymied elected legislators and governors who had acted reasonably to limit pain and suffering awards when state constitutions did not explicitly disallow such limits.”

In this Missouri case, Watts v. Cox, Joyce continued, “The 4-3 majority hung its hat on the state constitution’s guaranteed right to a jury trial and nearly 200-year-old common law while ignoring precedents from the U.S. Supreme Court on down, including one of its own decisions earlier this year.

“Yesterday’s Watts decision is inconsistent with the high court’s April 3 ruling in a wrongful death case, in which it upheld a limit on noneconomic damages with regard to statutorily created causes of action,” he observed.

“In any case, lawmakers representing the democratic will of Missourians in 2005 acted to contain rising insurance premiums for health care professionals and, in doing so, head off potentially critical problems with access to care,” Joyce said.  “No one’s right to a jury trial was jeopardized by that important reform law, and the dissenting opinion in Watts says as much.”

Writing for the court’s three dissenters, Judge Mary R. Russell also wrote that the majority opinion “overrul[es] more than 20 years of precedent” and “reflects a wholesale departure from the unequivocal law of this state . . . .”

Seeking a silver lining, Joyce concluded by noting the court’s inconsistency with respect to the common law and statute.  “This invites the legislature to craft a comprehensive medical liability reform law that expressly replaces centuries’ old common law.  Of course, the court’s trial lawyer-friendly majority could respond with another contorted rationale for thwarting reform, but lawmakers must ultimately succeed if the cost of and access to health care in Missouri is to help the state compete for jobs and economic growth.”