Missouri’s Tort Reform Bill Signed into Law

Senate Bill 239 has been passed by both chambers, receiving a bipartisan support. It was signed by Governor Jay Nixon earlier this May. SB 239 is a tort reform legislation aimed at addressing key issues that have been plaguing Missouri’s health care industry in the recent years.

A decade ago, the state of Missouri doctors were such that they had to run out of state due to high health care costs. Therefore, legislation was passed establishing a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 538.210. This not only reduced the number of frivolous lawsuits flooding the court system, but also stabilized these runaway medical malpractice insurance rates to avoid the doctors fleeing out of state. Although this seemed to work out, it was short-lived.

In July 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled this cap as unconstitutional, because it violated an individual’s right to a trial by jury. Watts ex rel. Watts v. Lester E. Cox Med. Ctrs., 376 S.W.3d 633 (2012). The cap was thus removed.

Since then, doctors have seen their malpractice insurance rates double, and even triple in some cases, forcing them to pass on these costs on to their patients. This in turn led to a flashback of the situation that existed a decade ago.

It therefore became necessary that a safeguard be brought in the form of SB 239. The bill reinstates caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits to no more than $400,000 for personal injury, and no more than $700,000 for a catastrophic personal injury or death. Further, the caps are set to increase by 1.7 percent each year to be able to adjust for rising expenses. Also, when a jury does return a verdict awarding non-economic damages exceeding $400,000, and upon a post-trial motion, the trial court shall determine whether the limitations as provided in the act shall apply.[1] The bill does not call for any caps on economic or punitive damages, as these are already applicable in the existing law.

The bill will ensure victims of medical malpractice cases receive fair and just compensation, while setting reasonable limits on damages.

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