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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.

There has been a lot of discussions in recent months on abolishing the Missouri Court Plan, which provides that, in all appellate courts, including the Missouri Supreme Court, and some county courts, judges will be appointed by the governor from an approved and vetted panel. Those judges will then stand for retention in an election. This has been how Missouri selects and retains its judges for many years. The plan is so successful, that it is hailed around the country as a model to be followed.

But, since Democrat Governor Jay Nixon was elected in 2008, conservatives and business political groups have called for an end to the Missouri Court Plan. (Never mind that they had no problem with the plan when a Republican was doing the appointing …) It has become a main attack point in these highly partisan political times.

Dismantling the Missouri Court Plan is a bad idea. A very bad idea. And you have to look no further than our neighbor Illinois to know why. Illinois elects its judges, including Supreme Court justices. And tens of millions of dollars have been spent in those campaigns in recent years. And what do contributors get for their money? Anything they want.

This article from the Chicago Tribune tells the story in all its sordid detail. Basically, Justice Lloyd Karmeier, a southern Illinois Republican, was elected to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2004 in a race that cost over $9,000,000.

A $1.18 billion dollar judgment had been entered against State Farm if a class action case for breach of contract in providing non-original manufacturer parts in its collision repairs and hiding that fact from its insureds. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judgment and then it mades its way to the Illinois Supreme Court.

In filings with the Illinois Supreme Court this week, attorneys for the plaintiffs have alleged and provided supporting documents to demonstrate that Justice Karmeier was actually recruited by State Farm to run for the seat on the Illinois Supreme Court in anticipation of the case being heard. These Court filings indicate that directly and through other entities, State Farm donated between $2.5 million and $4 million dollars to Karemeier’s campaign.

Obviously, I don’t know whether these allegations are true or not. If they are true, it is an eerie parallel to supposed fiction, like John Grisham’s “The Appeal”. If it is true, it is a one of the greatest acts of fraud ever perpetrated.

And even if its not true, it just goes to show you that, inherently, electing judges is fraught with danger. Compare it to the recent Republican debate, in which Governor Perry of Texas said “I’m offended that you think I could be bought with $5,000.” Left unsaid was that he could be bought for $350,000 in campaign contributions. If these allegations are true, State Farm made a damn good investment in Justice Karmeier. $4,000,000 to overturn a $1+ billion dollar judgment? Sounds like a hell of a return on their investment to me.

The Missouri Supreme Court has unanimously abolished the last vestiges of contributory negligence in the recently decided Children’s Wish Foundation International, Inc. v. Mayer Hoffman McCann, P.C.. So what is contributory negligence and why should you care?

First, what is it? In 1983 the Missouri Supreme Court adopted comparative fault. Under comparative fault a jury will decide the relative levels of fault of the various parties involved in any kind of negligence case. The issue arises most often in personal injury and medical malpractice cases. Take your basic auto accident case. In an intersectional accident, you may have one driver who failed to yield and the other driver may have been speeding. Both are at fault. Under comparative fault the jury decides how much each party is at fault. For example, if one driver is injured and the jury finds that he was 10% at fault, the jury would decide the value of that drivers injuries and then the judge would enter a judgment for 90% of the damages. The system is inherently fair and equitable.

Before Missouri adopted comparative fault it operated under the contributory negligence standard. Under contributory negligence if the injured driver was even 1% at fault, he could not recover anything for his injuries. An inherently unfair system. But as I said, it was abolished in 1983, right? Well, not entirely. And that leads to why it might matter to you.

In the intervening years, various appellate courts have determined that contributory negligence was still the standard in negligence cases that involve only monetary damages, as opposed to physical injuries. Mostly this was cases of legal malpractice and accounting malpractice. The result? Attorneys and accountants sued for malpractice have been able to show even slight negligence on the part of their clients and walk away without paying a dime for the damages they caused by their negligence.

Well, not anymore. The Children’s Wish Foundation case has clearly and finally abolished contributory negligence in Missouri. From now on a jury will be instructed to determine the relative fault of all parties in any negligence case.

And that is a good thing for all Missouri citizens.

Todd N. Hendrickson concentrates his practice in the areas of medical malpractice, personal injury, and legal malpractice. You can contact him by clicking here or calling 314-721-8833.