JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. • Missouri Gov. Jay 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.
"This bipartisan legislation protects patients by making sure that significant financial restitution can be sought in cases of medical malpractice, while also helping to attract and retain health care providers in our state," said Nixon in a statement.
Noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, would be capped at $400,000 in most medical personal injury cases. Measurable economic damages, such as medical costs resulting from the injury and lost wages, would not be subject to the limits.
For "catastrophic" cases defined in the bill, including paralysis, loss of vision and brain injury, the cap would be $700,000. The bill also doubles the existing cap in wrongful death cases from $350,000 to $700,000.
In July 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that a 2005 law imposing a flat $350,000 limit on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases was unconstitutional. It said the limits violated the right to a jury trial that had existed under common law when Missouri's first constitution was adopted in 1820.
By specifying in this year's legislation that medical malpractice cases are a statutory and not a common law cause of action, lawmakers said they believe the new caps will be backed by the courts.
Opponents argue that limiting how much money people can receive only further hurts patients who have already been damaged by a doctor's actions and could allow repeat offenders to keep practicing without facing meaningful consequences for their actions. House Minority Leader Rep. Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, opposes caps because he said juries should be able to make those decisions rather than bureaucrats in Jefferson City.
"I don't think you should put a dollar figure on a person's life," he said.
Limits have failed in previous years in the face of staunch Democratic opposition. This year, Democratic senators decided not to block the legislation after an agreement allowing higher caps in some cases and the inclusion of a yearly 1.7 percent increase on the limits.
Supporters of the legislation include hospitals and doctors' groups. They have warned that insurance costs could spike, lawsuits will increase and doctors will take their practices elsewhere without caps.
Missouri State Medical Association lobbyist Jeff Howell said earlier this year that the costs for insuring hospitals against medical malpractice lawsuits have increased when there are no caps — sometimes to unsustainable levels. He said that may not be reflected yet in rates because the market takes time to adjust to the potentially unlimited lawsuit awards.