Tort Reform Safe for Now in Missouri

A March 23, 2010 Missouri Supreme Court decision held that Missouri’s tort reform law passed in 2005 did not apply to plaintiffs retroactively.  James and Mary Klotz sued James’ doctor and the hospital after he contracted a staph infection following a pacemaker procedure in 2004. 

The Klotzes won their lawsuit after the jury found malpractice, but the trial court applied the 2005 law’s cap on non-economic damages and limited recovery for the Klotzes to $350,000,  even though the jury returned a verdict in excess of $2 million.  The Supreme Court reversed, holding the non-economic damage cap did not apply because the Klotzes’ claim arose in 2004.

In two concurring opinions, Judges Michael Wolf and Richard Teitelman found fault with the 2005 law.  Judge Wolf believes the law limits the right to a jury trial and Judge Teitelman found the law violates equal protection standards because it adversely affects the poor, elderly and minorities.   See more from insurancejournal.com.

The Supreme Court for the State of Georgia recently struck down a tort reform law there.  Georgia also implemented a non-economic damage cap of $350,000.  The Court there found the damage cap violated the right to trial by jury because it interfered with the jury’s role in determining damages.  See this article from American Medical News.

Likewise, the State of Illinois struck down a cap on non-economic damages in February 2010.  In that case, the Court found the legislature violated state requirements for separation of powers, in that the power to determine damages should be reserved for the judicial branch.  More from the nytimes.com.

Tort reform was implemented in Missouri in 2005, when House Bill 393 was signed into law.  The impetus for the bill was a widespread belief that medical malpractice claims and judgments were leading to ever-increasing malpractice insurance rates and driving doctors out of the state.  The bill not only imposed caps on non-economic damages, it also capped punitive damage awards and set the statute of limitations for bringing claims to two years.

So has tort reform worked in Missouri?  According to an August 2009 article from the Kansas City Star, medical malpractice insurance premiums are down, fewer malpractice cases are being filed, and total jury awards in alpractice cases have also gone down.  But, as the article points out, this is only a small “drop in the bucket” for total healthcare spending, which is skyrocketing. 

While the Missouri Supreme Court only decided the most recent case on the issue of retroactivity, the two concurring opinions seem to be a direct invitation for plaintiff’s attorneys to challenge the law on right to jury trial and equal protection grounds.  It will also be interesting to see how the recent passage of the federal healthcare bill will affect the filing of malpractice claims altogether.

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