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Georgia, Missouri and Kansas Courts

Three States Address Capping Noneconomic Damages

The Missouri Decision

James and Mary Klotz brought a medical malpractice lawsuit against his surgeon and the hospital after James Klotz had a pacemaker implanted following a heart attack. However, the implanted pacemaker caused a drug-resistant staph infection that became so severe that Klotz, now 69 years old, lost his right leg, left foot, kidney and most of his hearing. A Missouri jury found that the hospital was negligent in failing to change an IV and that the physician was negligent in implanting the pacemaker. The jury awarded the Klotzs $2.5 million, half of which was for noneconomic damages. But the trial court in Klotz v. St. Anthony's Medical Center found that it was statutorily bound to apply a law similar to Georgia's, and reduced noneconomic damages to the statutory cap of $350,000.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that because the Klotzs' dispute arose before the law went into effect, they could not now be penalized by the legislated caps on damages. Two judges would have gone further.

A carefully written concurrence considered the history of jury trials in the state, and how that history affected caps on noneconomic damages as a whole. "The limit on noneconomic damages violates the right to trial by jury; it overrules the jury's determination of a factual issue," The judge urged the court to "restore the right to trial by jury to its traditional and vital place in our constitutional system."

Another judge agreed. "It takes money to prove medical negligence. Few lawyers will  take a complex case of medical negligence on behalf of a poor person whose damages are disproportionately noneconomic … As compelling as the state's interest in quality health care is, I cannot see the necessity of providing that care on the backs of the most disadvantaged victims of medical negligence."

AARP's Amicus Briefs

AARP's briefs in these cases and the Miller v. Johnson case still pending before the Kansas Supreme Court argue that caps on noneconomic damages discriminate against older people, women, racial minorities, children and other people with limited incomes in three key ways: (1) because these groups tend to have smaller future earnings their economic damages (lost wages, etc.) are lower, making the noneconomic damages even more important; (2) caps on noneconomic damages also send a dangerous message that no matter how egregious or repulsive is the injury perpetrated on a victim, the cost to the wrongdoer for mental anguish, emotional harm and other noneconomic suffering will never exceed a specified monetary cap; and (3) a cap on damages effectively denies access to justice for many older people because most attorneys who represent low-income victims in personal injury cases do so on a contingency fee basis and cannot afford to take the case if the noneconomic damages are unreasonably limited.

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