Lawsuit caps get renewed attention from Republican lawmakers
By Joe Raedle
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Nearly a decade after Missouri last limited some civil lawsuit awards, Republican lawmakers are organizing to reinstate caps overturned by the state's highest court.
Businesses can now face lawsuits with unlimited punitive damages in civil injury lawsuits after the Missouri Supreme Court struck down a $500,000 limit on the awards last September, two years after striking down other limits for medical malpractice awards. Punitive damages are intended to punish wrongdoing and deter future misbehavior.
Business groups and Republican leaders want that decision reversed and may attempt a state constitutional amendment to ensure the court cannot interfere with caps again.
"Missouri will continue to be a judicial hellhole" if caps are not put in place, said Senate Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, who lists a constitutional amendment capping punitive damages as his top priority for the session.
Advocates of lawsuit reform are particularly focused this session on restoring caps on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, which were part of a larger lawsuit reform package the Legislature passed and then-Gov. Matt Blunt signed into law in 2005.
Proponents say the limits on jury awards for noneconomic damages, such as for pain and suffering, would provide certainty for businesses, hospitals and doctors while still allowing significant penalties for wrongdoing. Actual economic damages, including lost wages, wouldn't be capped.
The 2005 law lowered limits on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases from $579,000 to $350,000. In striking down both the medical malpractice caps in 2012 and the civil injury ones last year, the Supreme Court found they violated citizens' rights to a jury trial.
Failing to limit jury verdicts in medical malpractice cases could drive up insurance premiums, increase health care costs and deter doctors from practicing in Missouri, supporters argue.
Jay Atkins, the top lobbyist for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said there would be a similar effect on businesses without punitive damage caps. He said trial attorneys misuse them to leverage larger settlements from businesses who were not acting maliciously.
"If the trial bar would stop the practice of using punitive damages to line their own pockets, maybe we could find some common ground," Atkins said.
Caps of any sort in these civil injury lawsuits clearly violate individual rights and show the Legislature does not trust juries to make decisions, said Steve Garner, a past president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys. Punitive damages are only awarded in egregious cases, he said, and caps offer "an olive branch to the worst actors out there."
Efforts to limit noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases since the 2012 decision have passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
Medical malpractice may be an easier lift than broader caps, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said before the session began. He noted that while the Senate would try to address the broader business component, some in the Republican caucus would not support that.
Dempsey said the Senate would first try a bill to fix the problem rather than a constitutional amendment, which voters would have to approve after the Legislature passes it.