John M. Reeves, the founder and owner of Reeves Law LLC, is an appellate attorney based in St. Louis, Missouri. He has briefed and argued cases in the Missouri Court of Appeals, the Missouri Supreme Court, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. He also regularly briefs cases in the Supreme Court of the United States, and has submitted briefs in the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Mr. Reeves authored an amicus brief on behalf of the Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers in support of upholding the statutory caps at issue in Velazquez. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.
Today—August 10, 2021—Missouri celebrates its bicentennial as a state. But there are additional reasons to celebrate the Show-Me-State. Traditionally a plaintiff-friendly venue, Missouri appears to have finally dropped its judicial hostility towards tort reform. This past July, its supreme court upheld a statutory cap on noneconomic damages for actions against health care providers, finding that the cap does not violate one’s right to a jury trial under the Missouri Constitution. See Ordinola v. Univ. Physician Assoc., — S.W.3d –, 2021 WL 3119063 (Mo. July 22, 2021). This ruling most likely brings to an end a decades-long, contentious battle between the Missouri General Assembly and the Missouri Supreme Court over the imposition of statutory caps. Nor is that all—the opinion provides a roadmap to other state legislatures on how to overcome judicial hostility to such statutory caps.
As discussed in my previous WLF Legal Pulse post,1 in 2012 the Missouri Supreme Court invalidated a statutory cap on common-law medical malpractice causes of action. Watts v. Lester E. Cox Med. Ctrs., 376 S.W.3d 633, 640-41 (Mo. 2012). According to Watts, such caps violated the Missouri Constitution’s guaranty of a right to a trial by jury as it was understood at the time Missouri became a state in 1821, in that such caps interfered with the jury’s factfinding mission. In coming to this ruling, Watts overlooked the fact that while juries have traditionally determined factual issues, they have never had the authority to determine the legal consequences of such factual findings. Authority to determine the legal consequences has always resided with the courts, applying either the common law or statutory law as promulgated by the legislature.
The Missouri Supreme Court appeared to recognize the problems several years later when it affirmed the validity of statutory caps as applied to wrongful death actions. Dodson v. Ferrara, 491 S.W.3d 542 (Mo. 2016). The court concluded that because wrongful death actions were unknown at common law, and instead are statutory creations, the legislature had the authority to define the legal remedies in such causes of action.
The Missouri General Assembly decided to call the Missouri Supreme Court’s bluff by passing a series of laws that abrogated common law negligence/malpractice actions by health care providers and substituted statutory causes of action with the same elements. It also established statutory caps of $400,000 on noneconomic damages for such actions. See Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 1.010.2 and 538.210.
Not surprisingly, the plaintiff’s bar was unhappy with these statutory enactments, and accordingly in Ordinola brought a constitutional challenge claiming that the statutory caps violated the Missouri Constitution’s guarantee of a jury trial. In doing so, the plaintiff’s bar made the case about far more than tort reform: it also went to the heart of the state legislature’s authority to modify or abrogate common law actions, thus raising serious separation-of-powers issues.
Thankfully, and as I cautiously predicted, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the statutory caps in a 5-1 decision. While declining to overrule Watt’s dubious holding that the state legislature could not impose statutory caps on common law causes of action, it nevertheless acknowledged that the General Assembly had the authority to abrogate common law causes and replace them with statutory claims. “It is undisputed that the General Assembly possesses the authority to abolish common law causes of action.” Ordinola, 2021 WL at *3. Adopting an argument made in an amicus brief I filed in the case on behalf of the Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers, the court likened the statutory caps to the General Assembly abolishing common law negligence claims against employers and substituting it with a statutory workers’ compensation scheme. See id.
Unfortunately, Ordinola’s discussion of this matter is rather brief and perfunctory; one would have hoped for a more elaborate opinion from the court, but nevertheless its holding is clear. It appears to mark the end of hostility towards statutory caps based on the notion that they somehow violate the right to a jury trial. Hopefully other jurisdictions will take note of the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision and arrive at similar conclusions.