Missouri Supreme Court upholds limits on medical malpractice lawsuit payouts

Galen Bacharier
Springfield News-Leader
Doctors from St. Mary’s Hospital stand behind Gov. Jay Nixon as he signs new legislation Thursday in Jefferson City regarding medical malpractice. Nixon signed a measure Thursday capping some damage awards in medical malpractices cases, three years after the state’s Supreme Court struck down similar limits as unconstitutional.

Missouri's high court ruled Thursday that limits on damages for medical malpractice cases are constitutional, allowing a law passed in 2015 to move forward.

By a vote of 5-1, the state Supreme Court said the Missouri General Assembly was constitutionally able to enforce limits on how much individuals suing for personal injury can recover. The 2015 law, approved by the Republican legislature and signed by former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, capped non-economic damages for personal injury at $400,000 and $700,000 for catastrophic personal injury.

Nine years ago the court ruled a similar law, which limited non-economic damages in malpractice cases to $350,000, unconstitutional. The caps in the 2015 law, the majority of the court determined, repealed a previous action enshrined in the state's common law with "medical negligence action." Therefore, lawmakers had the power to enforce the more recent law.

The ruling was lambasted in a Friday statement by the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, whose past president Brett Emison said it "eviscerates Missouri's constitutional protection" of the right to trial by jury. 

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"The Court ... ignored this precedent in permitting the legislature to erase centuries-old common law and replace it with a statute that fundamentally infringes on the right to trial as it was provided in Missouri's constitution in 1820," Emison said. "The Court's holding today puts ALL constitutional rights in jeopardy according to the whims of the legislature."

In 2017, Maria del Carmen Ordinola Velaquez sued University Physician Associates and several of its physicians, alleging that negligent operation during her C-section led to internal bleeding and additional surgeries. A trial court jury ruled in Ordinola's favor in 2019, ordering that she be awarded $1 million in non-economic damages.

Physicians asked the court to reduce the damages, citing the 2015 law. Ordinola, opposing the request, argued that it violated her right to trial by jury, which was rejected by the court. After her reward was reduced to just below $750,000, Ordinola and the physicians both appealed.

Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics & government for the News-Leader. Contact him at gbacharier@news-leader.com, (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.