from AAJ President Mary Alice McLarty
Twenty years. That’s how long it took to overrule the Missouri precedent set by Adams v. Children’s Mercy Hospital (1992) and strike down a statute that set a hard cap of $350,000 on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases.
At the core of this outstanding victory is the work of the Center for Constitutional Litigation, a private law firm that is often hired by AAJ members to bring constitutional challenges to laws that impede access to the courts. CCL also represents AAJ’s interests before public policy groups, in court rulemaking, and in the courts via amicus curiae briefs.
The victory in Watts v. Lester Cox Medical Center restores the constitutional right of Missouri citizens to have a jury determine the amount of damages in civil cases. This means that a child who was severely injured at birth and suffered disabling brain damage will receive compensation for his injuries based on the facts found by the jury. A jury made the decision to award damages in a specific amount when attorney Roger Johnson of Johnson, Vorhees & Martucci, tried the case. Because of the Missouri cap, however, the jury’s decision on non-economic damages was arbitrarily reduced.
This case was appealed by Johnson and CCL. Andre M. Mura, CCL’s litigation counsel, successfully briefed and argued the case before the Missouri Supreme Court.
Overcoming a precedent is an uphill battle. That was especially true here, because the State Attorney General represented the negligent health care providers, and the amicus briefs for the opposing side were piled high. It was a tort “reform” Who’s Who: The Missouri Chamber of Commerce; the American Tort Reform Association; Property Casualty Insurers Association of America; Physician Insurers Association of America; National Chamber Litigation Center Inc.; American Insurance Association; National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies; Missouri Hospital Association; Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers; Washington University, Saint Louis University, and The University of Missouri; American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; Missouri College of emergency Physicians; Missouri Association of Rural Health Clinics; the American Medical Association, and eight other national and state specialty medical associations.
But CCL made a compelling case in briefing and oral argument that these anti-civil-justice litigants and their amici could not match. The court ruled 4-3 to overrule the 20-year precedent and strike down the law that capped non-economic damages.
The court also ruled that the trial court abused its discretion in ordering a periodic payment schedule for future medical damages. The trial court's plan required that half of future medical damages be paid immediately, and half be paid over 50 years (the plaintiff's life expectancy) at an interest rate provided by statute— .26%. The State Attorney General, on behalf of the negligent doctors, cross-appealed because it read the periodic payment statute to require full payment of future medical damages periodically at a rate of .26%. The court agreed with plaintiffs that the judge had the discretion to determine what part of future damages would be paid over time. The court also agreed that it was unreasonable to order that half be paid at a rate of .26%. At such a low interest rate, far less than half the value of future damages that would otherwise be paid over time. The issue of payments for future medical damages is now remanded to the trial court.
CCL has pending cap challenges in Kansas, Mississippi, Florida, and Indiana. This latest victory adds new fuel to these other constitutional challenges. CCL’s work continues to make a difference to our practices, our clients, and in the preservation of civil rights for everyone.
I hope you will join me in congratulating CCL.
Mary Alice McLarty
American Association for Justice
Caps Unconstitutional; 20-Year Precedent Overruled
August 23, 2012
NEW Seventh Circuit Decision & CCL Victory for AAJ Members:
Seeking Fair Share of Fees Under the Equitable “Common-Fund” Doctrine
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