Wednesday, August 1, 2012
On Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court that legislative caps on the amount an injured plaintiff may recover for non-economic damages in a medical malpractice case violate the state's constitutional right to trial by jury. Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers, No. SC91867 (Mo. July 31, 2012). The court decided the case 4-3.
The Missouri legislature previously passed a law limiting the recovery for non-economic damages in a medical malpractice case to $350,000. Deborah Watts brought suit against her physician on behalf of her child, Naython Kayne Watts, for brain injuries sustained by the child during pre-natal care and delivery. A Missouri jury awarded Watts $1.45 million in non-economic damages, however, following the recovery cap law, the trial court reduced the recovery to $350,000.
The Missouri Supreme Court employed a textual and historical analysis to overturn the recovery limitation law. Missouri's state consitution, adopted in 1820, guarantees that "the right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain involate..." The court read the guarantee to mean that if Missouri common law entitled a plaintiff to a jury trial on non-economic damage in a medical negligence action prior to the state consitution being enacted, then Watts had that same right guaranteed in the present.
The court found that Blackstone identified medical negligence as one of "five types of private wrongs" that could be redressed in court, and that English common law allowed plaintiffs so injured to recover non-economic damages. Further, the court found that Missouri law pre-statehood provided for a jury trial in "all cases of the value of one hundred dollars ... if either of the parties require it." Because the right to jury trial on non-economic damages in a medical malpractice existed at common law prior to 1820, the court concluded, Watts enjoys a constitutionally guaranteed right to trial by jury on her claim for non-economic damages.
The court's decision overturned Adams by and Through Adams v. Children's Mercy Hospital, 832 S.W.2d 898, 907 (Mo. 1992) which had previously upheld the recovery cap against a similar state constitutional challenge. The disagreement between Adams and Watts is on whether or not the Missouri right to trial by jury is satisfied by the mere trial before the jury. Inasmuch as the law allows the jury to hear the evidence and assess damages, Adams concluded, the constitutional guarantee is satisfied even though the recovery cap essentially renders the jury's decision without meaning beyond the cap amount. The Watts court rejected this interpretation:
Adams fundamentally misconstrues the nature of the right to trial by jury. While [the Missouri Constitution] sets the constitutional role of the jury, it does so by guaranteeing an individual right to a trial by jury. The application of [the recover cap law] may permit the jury to perform its constitutional role, but it deprives the individual of his or her right to the damages awarded by the jury. The constitutional significance of the jury’s role in determining damages is reflected in the analytical basis for determining whether the right to trial by jury attaches -- if the action is a civil action for damages, then the right to a jury trial attaches and must “remain inviolate.” Because the constitutional right to a civil jury trial is contingent upon there being an action for damages, statutory limits on those damages directly curtail the individual right to one of the most significant constitutional roles performed by the jury -- the determination of damages. The argument that section 538.210 does not interfere with the right to trial by jury because the jury had a practically meaningless opportunity to assess damages simply “pays lip service to the form of the jury but robs it of its function.”
States continue to return mixed verdicts on state constitutional challenges to recovery cap legislation, typically on textual, historical or structural grounds.