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Missouri Supreme Court protects the right to a jury trial in medical negligence cases

One key component to any medical negligence case is uniqueness. A victim’s suffering cannot be reduced or rounded to a simple number. Every instance of negligence is its own story and in turn, every victim’s recovery should be evaluated on a case-by case basis. Fortunately, all medical negligence cases implement a constitutional right – the right to a trial by jury – that protects the unique evaluation of every case.

It is the legal system’s responsibility to protect the right to a trial by jury. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has lived up to that obligation. Last summer, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down a 2005 state law, which capped noneconomic damages (for pain and suffering) in medical malpractice cases at $350,000. In its decision, the court noted that the law infringed on a person’s right to trial by jury, which includes the right to jury-determined damages.

Watts v. Lester Cox Medical Centers

The case before the court involved a young boy who was born with brain injuries at a hospital in Springfield, Missouri. The mother of the boy sued the hospital and a number of attending physicians for negligent care involved in a delayed cesarean delivery necessitated by fetal hypoxia and acidosis. The jury ruled in favor of the mother, awarding approximately $3.4 million in future medical damages and $1.5 million in noneconomic damages. Subsequent to the jury’s ruling, the judge reduced the noneconomic damages to $350,000 or the limit set by Missouri law.

When the award was reduced, the plaintiff appealed, noting that the right to a jury trial, as guaranteed in the Missouri State Constitution, was violated because the jury award was not honored. The plaintiff noted that because medical negligence cases existed in 1820, when the Constitution was adopted, the right to a jury trial is inviolate in that it applies to injury and medical negligence cases.

The Missouri Supreme Court agreed. According to the court, allowing the legislature to limit the amount a jury could award took the power out of the hands of the jury, contradicting the Missouri State Constitution.

Before the ruling, the National Conference of State Legislatures notes that Missouri was one of about two dozen states with laws that cap noneconomic damages in malpractice suits. However, as in the case of Missouri’s former legislation, many of these laws have not survived constitutional muster.

Missouri’s final ruling in Watts means that victims of medical malpractice will retain the right to a jury trial. Furthermore, with this right comes the privilege of personal case evaluation, which permits the jury to assess the noneconomic damages in each case without a cap.

If you have been injured as a result of medical negligence, contact an experienced personal injury law attorney. A lawyer can help you pursue appropriate damages.