“The history of the King of Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states, [including] depriv[ing] us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury.”
Declaration of Independence, Adopted in Congress July 4, 1776.
“That the right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate…”
Article I, sec. 22(a), Missouri Constitution
Since the founding of our nation, one of the bedrock principles of our democracy has been the right to a trial by jury, that is, a right to a trial before ordinary members of the community. Similarly, since the founding of the great State of Missouri, jury trials have served as a bulwark against abuses by the rich and powerful, by the government, and by wrongdoers.
This fundamental principle of democracy was upended by the Missouri Legislature in 2005, by passage of a raft of changes to civil laws heavily pushed by insurance companies and powerful business lobbies. One particularly egregious change was the establishment of a “damage cap,” essentially a legislative declaration of the “worth” of a person’s suffering at the hands of a wrongdoer. Determination of an injured person’s damages has always been a jury function – not a governmental function. Thus, at the moment the cap was signed into law, the right to trial by jury was taken from the people of this State and usurped by the government.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the State of Missouri restored the constitutional protection of trial by jury.
In Watts v. Lester Cox Medical Center, et al., No. SC91867 (Mo. 2012), the Supreme Court of Missouri held that the statute which purported to limit, or cap, non-economic damage in medical malpractice cases violates the Missouri Constitution. Specifically, the Court held that the statute infringes upon the right to trial by jury guaranteed by Article I, Section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution. The Court also held that the trial court misapplied a separate statute related to the periodic payments of future damages, and gave guidance for future courts confronted with that statute.The periodic payment part of the Court’s ruling will be addressed in an upcoming post.
Deborah Watts filed a medical malpractice suit on behalf of her son, Naython Watts, against Cox Medical Center and its associated physicians (“Cox Medical Center”) for their negligent prenatal care and delivery. As a result of the negligence of Cox, Naython was born with catastrophic brain injuries.
At trial, the jury found in favor Ms. Watts and awarded non-economic damages of $1.45 million. After the jury issued its verdict, the trial judge reduced this amount to $350,000. The judge did this not based on anything specific to Naython’s horrific injuries. Rather, he was required to do so under § 538.210 of the Missouri Revised Statutes. This statute, passed in 2005, set an arbitrary, “one size fits all” cap of $350,000.
Ms. Watts appealed the trial court’s reduction of non-economic damages, arguing that the cap on such damages violated the right to a trial by jury as well as other provisions of the Missouri Constitution. Because the Court agreed with her argument that it violated the right to a trial by jury, it did not determine whether it violated any other provisions.
Article I, Section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution guarantees that “the right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate ….” The Court determined that this provision requires a two-part analysis. First, the Court considered whether a medical negligence action and claim for non-economic damages was included within the right of trial by jury “as heretofore enjoyed” at the time the Missouri Constitution was adopted in 1820. The Court answered this question in the affirmative; medical malpractice plaintiffs did have a right to a jury trial in 1820.
Second, the Court considered whether the right to trial by jury remain[s] “inviolate” when a statutory cap requires courts to reduce the jury’s verdict. The statute imposes a cap on the jury’s award of non-economic damages that operates wholly independent of the facts of the case, the Court found, and therefore it necessarily and unavoidably violates the state constitutional right to trial by jury.
The defendants in the case argued, based upon a decision of the Missouri Supreme Court in 1992, that statutory damage caps were constitutionally allowed because the trial judge’s reduction of non-economic damages occurs only after the jury has issued its award. The WattsCourt found this reasoning fundamentally flawed, and actually overruled its decision that allowed caps to stand. The Court’s rationale is highly persuasive: “The argument that section 538.210 does not interfere with the right to trial by jury because the jury had a practically meaningless opportunity to assess damages simply ‘pays lip service to the form of the jury but robs it of its function.'”
The founding fathers considered the right to trial by jury so fundamental to a democratic system that they enshrined it in the Bill of Rights. This federal constitutional right to a trial by jury in civil cases is similar to the right enshrined in the Missouri constitution. If anything, Missouri’s guarantee of this right is stronger than the federal right. This right, being constitutional in origin, is immune from hostile legislation such as a damages cap.
The Missouri Supreme Court upheld Naython Watts’ constitutional right to have a jury determine the damage caused by careless medical care. Naython and his mother will have to live with the consequences of this negligent treatment, and money won’t give back the healthy life Naython probably would have had. By upholding the Missouri constitution, the state Supreme Court has saved Naython from being harmed by legislation of his own state government, on top of the harm caused by those entrusted with his care.