Watts v. Cox Medical Centers: Damages Limit Struck in Missouri Supreme Court Ruling

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The Missouri Supreme Court, sitting en banc, has issued a potentially groundbreaking decision, overruling one of its own cases and rejecting a statute that limits the award of noneconomic damages to plaintiffs. See Watts v. Lester E. Cox Med. Ctrs., No. SC91867 (Mo. Jul. 31, 2012) (available here). In a 4-3 decision, the court determined that the state’s $350,000 statutory cap on noneconomic damages conflicts with the right to a jury trial guaranteed by the Missouri constitution.

The plaintiff, a child born with severe brain damage caused by medical negligence, was awarded $3.371 million in compensatory medical damages and $1.45 million in noneconomic damages by the jury at the trial level. However, the trial court reduced the noneconomic damages to $350,000, consistent with the statutory cap. The trial court also approved defendants’ payment plan as to the compensatory damages, which the plaintiff contended was unreasonable due to its extremely low interest rate and 50-year payment schedule.

On appeal, the defense relied heavily on Adams v. Children’s Hospital, 832 S.W.2d 898 (Mo. 1992), where the Missouri Supreme Court clearly stated that a statutory cap on damages is not violative of the right to a jury trial under the state constitution. The plaintiff argued that Adams was wrongly decided and should be overturned. In a bold and surprising move, the court agreed with the plaintiff, holding its own precedent to be unconstitutional. Thus, Adams was overruled, and the court remanded Watts back to the trial level to have the damages award reinstated, and also instructed the lower court to adopt a new payment plan that will ensure full recovery for the plaintiff.

The Watts case was featured in the 2011 documentary Hot Coffee, a film which explores the dangers of “tort reform” and how it can undermine the role of the jury and lead to unjust results for injured plaintiffs.