As a Missouri medical malpractice attorney, I was interested to see an appeal that sought to challenge our state’s cap on damages in medical malpractice cases. I dislike damages caps in any context because juries and judges should be free to make their determinations according to the facts of each individual case, without an arbitrary limit placed by legislators who couldn’t know the context. I particularly dislike them in medical malpractice cases because these are highly politicized cases in which good legal judgment often takes a backseat to pleasing voters or special interest groups. In Sanders v. Ahmed, a cap on noneconomic damages was ultimately found constitutional under the Missouri constitution, but reversed a reduction in damages under another state law because of discovery violations.
Ronald Sanders lost his wife, Paulette Sanders, after treatment with a drug that Ronald Sanders said her body could not process. Paulette Sanders had a history of seizure disorders; she sought emergency room treatment in 2003 for numbness of the legs and trouble walking. Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed, a neurologist, examined her and ordered a change in medications to Depakote. Her condition worsened and she had a seizure six days after starting the Depakote, after which Ahmed discontinued it. Nonetheless, Paulette Sanders deteriorated both physically and mentally, lapsing into a coma. She lived in a nursing home until her death in 2005. Ronald Sanders sued for medical malpractice and eventually wrongful death, alleging that Ahmed failed to recognize and treat problems Paulette’s body had processing the Depakote. The jury returned a verdict of $920,745 in economic damages and $9.2 million in noneconomic damages, but the judge reduced the noneconomic damages to $1.2 million under a Missouri damages cap.
Both parties appealed, with Sanders arguing that the damages cap violates the state constitution. Ahmed challenged the award itself and argued that the damages should have been reduced by the amount of the previous settlements, and he should have been granted a payment plan. The Missouri Supreme Court started by rejecting the appeal from Sanders. The constitutionality of the damages cap has already been decided as to common-law claims, it said, and it’s even more clear as applied to a statutory claim like wrongful death. Remedies for statutory violations are questions of law not decided by a jury, the court said. It next rejected Sanders’s arguments that a payment plan option is unconstitutional, but also rejected Ahmed’s argument that the court should have ordered a payment plan. The court noted that past damages are always due right away, and said it was permissible for the trial court to construe the entire reduced number as past damages. Nor did the facts support judgment notwithstanding the verdict, it said. However, the high court did agree that Ahmed should have been permitted to discover the amounts of Sanders’s previous settlements in order to argue for a reduction, and reversed and remanded that part.
Interestingly, two justices dissented from the decision on the constitutionality of the damages cap, arguing that the cap is unconstitutional because it violates plaintiffs’ rights to a trial by jury, as well as encroaching on the authority of the courts. As a St. Louis medical malpractice lawyer, I’m pleased to see this argument taken up by justices in our state’s highest court. I agree with the justices that allowing the legislature to arbitrarily limit the decisions of juries undermines the right of trial by jury and an important function of juries. I also agree with their separation of powers argument, which says the legislature cannot make a rule that replaces the important fact-finding function of the courts. This dissent is not the law of our state, but as a southern Illinois medical malpractice attorney, I’ll continue to watch for cases that address the issue.
If you’ve suffered an injury or death in the family because of a medical professional’s mistakes, you should call Carey, Danis & Lowe to discuss a medical malpractice claim. To learn more or set up a free consultation, send us a message online or call 1-877-678-3400.
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