Debate Stalls on Missouri Liability Limits Legislation

An effort to reinstate Missouri’s cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits stumbled Tuesday in the state Senate.

Senators discussed the legislation for about eight hours and worked into night but did not reach a vote. Sen. Dan Brown, who handled the measure, told reporters afterward he would continue working but that he did not feel particularly optimistic Tuesday night. The Legislature has until May 17 to pass new legislation before its mandatory adjournment.

“If there’s any way we can get to an agreement, I would stand on my head to do that at this point for the people in Missouri as well as the doctors,” said Brown, R-Rolla. He said negotiations had focused on a dollar amount for the cap.

The medical malpractice legislation (HB 112) seeks to reinstate a limit on noneconomic damages for issues such as pain and suffering that was struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court. An upper limit of $350,000 for such 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 legislation 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. That was approved earlier by the House on a 93-62 vote.

Supporters contend a cap on noneconomic damages would help control malpractice insurance premiums and that failing to take action could hamper the availability and affordability of health care. Earlier Tuesday, proponents held a rally at the state Capitol. When the Senate started its debate, several dozen people wearing white doctor’s coats watched from the public gallery.

Opponents say Missourians have a constitutional right to a jury trial that needs to be protected. Some senators voiced concern about how the measure’s cap on noneconomic damages would affect those who are harmed when a physician makes a mistake.

“We’re asking for a reasonable cap that will have the juries of this state determine what is and is not the facts of a medical malpractice case,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City.

The attempt to reconstitute the limit on noneconomic damages for medical malpractice cases comes after the Kansas Supreme Court last fall upheld that state’s limit of $250,000.