Tort Law

R. Max Humphreys, Esquire

Cap on noneconomic damages struck down by Supreme Court. Watts, et al. v. Cox Medical Center, et al., No. 91867 (Mo. banc, July 31, 2012), Teitelman, C.J.

This is the appeal of a medical malpractice action where the jury awarded $1.45 million dollars in noneconomic damages and $3.3 million dollars in future medical damages. The trial court reduced the noneconomic damages award to $350,000 as required by § 528.210 and established a periodic payment schedule pursuant to § 538.220, calling for half of the future medical damages to be paid over the next fifty years with an interest rate of 0.26%.

Plaintiff challenges the cap on noneconomic damages and also asserts that the periodic payment schedule was arbitrary and unreasonable due to the low interest rate and fifty year payment schedule. Defendant cross appealed claiming that the court’s order that immediate payments of future medical damages pursuant to § 538.220 was erroneous.

The challenge to the caps was on the basis of the Missouri Constitution’s guarantee of a trial by jury. The Missouri Constitutional Article I § 22A provides that the right to trial by jury as it existed prior to the adoption of the Constitution in 1820 was inviolate. Very simply stating the court found that the right to trial by jury included the right for the Plaintiff to have his damages determined by the jury. The court agreed finding that prior to 1820, the common law required the jury to assess damages. Defendant’s argument was that the jury assessed damages satisfying the constitutional requirement but the judge then made the award of damages calculating the noneconomic damages pursuant to statute. The Supreme Court disagreed with that argument.

The trial court’s decision as to the payment of future medical damages was reversed by the Supreme Court as arbitrary and unreasonable in that Plaintiff is not assured of full compensation due to the low interest rate and fifty year payment schedule. Section 538.215 requires that the court spread the payments over the life expectancy as provided by the evidence presented by Plaintiff and the interest rate to be calculated at the interest rate at the time of trial.

The Supreme Court remanded the judgment regarding the future payments and ordered the trial court to enter a new periodic payment schedule that is consistent with the goal of reducing medical malpractice costs also insured that Plaintiff will receive the benefit of the jury’s award for future medical care.

Keith A. Cutler, Esquire

Legal malpractice claims, and associated claims for punitive damages, survive the death of the plaintiff.  Roedder v. Callis, No. 97105 (Mo. App. E.D., June 5, 2012), Cohen, J.

Plaintiff’s husband had a $25 million judgment entered against him as a result of a vehicular personal injury lawsuit.  Husband filed a legal malpractice suit against the law firm that defended him in the personal injury lawsuit, but died while the legal malpractice suit was still pending.  His widow, as his personal representative, continued to pursue the malpractice lawsuit on behalf of the estate.  Defendant law firm moved to dismiss the malpractice suit, alleging that said claim did not survive the death of Husband.  The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, and Plaintiff widow appealed.

: Reversed and remanded.  Sections 537.010, 537.020, and 537.030 , RSMo, collectively provide that causes of action for damage to property interests and personal injury (except death, libel, slander, false imprisonment, and assault and battery) survive the death of the injured party.  Defendant law firm argued that the legal malpractice claim did not survive the death of Husband because of the hybrid nature of the claim (being both a claim for personal injury and for damage to property interests), the unique nature of the attorney-client relationship, and the unassignability of such claims.  However, the court of appeals determined that the Legislature’s intent is clear from the wording of the statutes, and there is no exception which excludes the survival of legal malpractice claims, or of any attendant claims for punitive damages.  Therefore, the trial court erred in dismissing the legal malpractice lawsuit.