Supreme Court Finds that Cap on Noneconomic Damages Violates Right to Trial by Jury; Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Center

The Missouri Supreme Court has found that the statute that limits noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases to $350,000 unlawfully infringes on a jury’s constitutional right to determine the amount of damage that a person has sustained from medical negligence.

In this Missouri case, Deborah Watts filed suit for medical negligence against the hospital and others alleging that her son suffered catastrophic brain injuries because of hospital and medical providers’ negligence. Ms. Watts went to Cox Medical Center at 39 weeks of pregnancy after she felt cramping and decreased fetal movement. No diagnostic tests were completed, and she was sent home. When she returned two days later, she was this time placed on a fetal heart tracing monitor. More than an hour later, her son Naython was delivered by Caeserean section. Unfortunately, Naython suffered catastrophic brain injuries.

The jury awarded $1.45 million in noneconomic damages and $3.371 million in future medical damages. However, because of the Missouri statute capping noneconomic damages, the trial judge reduced the noneconomic award to $350,000. Ms. Watts appealed, arguing that the statute violates the right to trial by jury and other violations of the state constitution.

The Supreme Court reversed in part stating that the Constitution provides that, “(T)he right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate . . .” This court went on to rule that civil actions for damages resulting from personal wrongs have been tried by juries since 1820, the year that the Constitution was adopted. The court concluded that the plaintiff’s medical negligence lawsuit, including her claim for noneconomic damages, is a type of case recognized in the common law when the Constitution was adopted.

The court found that the scope of the plaintiff’s right to a jury trial was defined by Missouri’s common law in 1820. The idea of statutory damage caps was not contemplated by the common law when the Constitution of Missouri was adopted.

The court stated that one of the jury’s primary functions is to serve as the fact-finder and to determine the amount and if a plaintiff is entitled to damages. Like other types of cases, noneconomic damages are a fact that must be determined by a jury.

The court concluded by stating that the Missouri statute curtailing the amount of noneconomic damages was an infringement on the constitutional right to trial by jury. Accordingly, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for a new trial.

Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Center, 2012 WL 3101657 (MO) July 31, 2012.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical negligence claims, wrongful death claims, nursing home abuse cases for individuals and families for more than 36 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights, Grayslake, Round Lake, Wheaton, Hinsdale, LaGrange and Evergreen Park, Illinois.

Robert Kreisman has been a member of the Missouri Bar since 1976.

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