MO Supreme Court Votes 5-2 to Uphold Caps on Non-Economic Damages in Wrongful Death Lawsuits

April 12, 2012,

file000704919536.jpgLast week, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of our state's limits (or "caps") on non-economic damages a plaintiff can collect in a wrongful death lawsuit, reports

The case (Sanders v. Ahmed) involved Ronald Sanders, whose wife Pauline died in 2005. In 2003, Pauline had been admitted to an Independence hospital after experiencing numbness in her legs and difficulty walking. Her primary care physician requested a consultation from a neurologist, Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed. After seeing Pauline (who had a history of seizures), Dr. Ahmed changed her medication and prescribed the drug Depakote.

Pauline's condition did not improve - in fact, she began to deteriorate. Over the next week, she became lethargic and suffered a focal seizure, and Dr. Ahmed cancelled her Depakote dosage at that time. Within days, Pauline stopped responding to all stimuli (even painful stimuli), and it was determined that she had suffered permanent brain damage. She lived in a long-term care facility for 2 years before she died.

Initially, Sanders had filed a personal injury lawsuit against Dr. Ahmed, which was subsequently amended into a wrongful death suit after Pauline passed away. The suit alleged that Dr. Ahmed failed to recognize and treat rising ammonia levels in Pauline's body, which was caused by the Depakote (Pauline's medical condition made it impossible for her body to dispose of byproduct ammonia). Those rising levels, Sanders claim said, resulted in the damage to Pauline's brain.

The jury concurred: when the lawsuit went to trial, Sanders was awarded $920,745.88 in past economic damages, and $7.5 million in future non-economic damages, making his total award $10,120,745.88.

However, because of Missouri's cap on non-economic damages, the final amount of his award was cut to $1,265,207.64. Sanders' non-economic damages had been cut to reflect Missouri's $350,000 cap on these awards.

Sanders' appeal went all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. His attorneys argued that Missouri's limits on non-economic damages "interfere with the Missouri Constitution's guarantee of the right to a jury trial because the caps substitute the judgment of the state Legislature for that of the jury."

The Court disagreed, upholding the original amount of the award with a 5-2 vote. In the decision, Judge William Ray Price Jr. wrote that "Missouri does not recognize a common-law claim for wrongful death," and thus, that the "legislature has the power to define the remedy available if it creates the cause of action," reports the Missouri Lawyers Media.

It's certain that the Missouri Supreme Court will have to revisit the limits on non-economic damages in the very near future: recently, they heard another case (Watts v. Cox Medical Center) that also addresses the limits on these damages. The 2 judges who dissented in Sanders v. Ahmed have said that their position will remain the same, and that they will vote again to deem these damage caps unconstitutional. "It is impossible for the right to trial by jury to 'remain inviolate' when a statutory limit requires the reduction of the jury's verdict, regardless of the particularized facts of each case," wrote Judge George W. Draper III.

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