On July 31, 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of Watts v Lester E. Cox Medical Centers. In a well-reasoned and detailed opinion by Chief Justice Richard B. Teitleman, the Court found unconstitutional the legislatively imposed limitations on damages that a jury can award in medical malpractice case found in §538.210 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri.
The law, passed as a component of sweeping changes to tort law in 2005, placed a limit of $350,000 on non-economic damages that could be awarded in a medical malpractice case.
The Missouri Supreme Court found that the limitation infringed on a jury’s duty, under the Missouri Constitution, to determine the facts in a medical malpractice case. One of the facts that a jury is charged with determining is the amount of the damages. Because the Missouri Constitution declares that the right a jury shall remain inviolate, the Supreme Court looked to whether the right to a jury, as it existed at the time the Missouri Constitution was adopted, included the right to have a jury determine damages. The Court held that it did and, therefore, §538.220 infringed on that right and was, therefore, unconstitutional.
The result is that a jury is not artificially limited in the amount of damages it can award. Of course, the jury’s judgment is still subject to review and revision by the Courts, both at the trial and appellate level. Either can chose to reduce an award based on the judicial power of remittitur.