Missouri Supreme Court Upholds Damage Caps for Statutory Causes of Action
by Chad E. Blomberg
Partner, Lathrop GPM
July 23, 2021 - The Missouri Supreme Court held on Tuesday that damage caps for statutory causes of action do not violate the right to trial by jury set forth in Article I, section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution.
The 5-1 opinion in Ordinola v. University Physicians Associates, SC98977, appears to clearly answer the following question: Can the legislature constitutionally abolish common law actions (for which damage caps have been held unconstitutional) and replace those actions with statutory causes of action (for which caps have been held to be constitutional)? The answer: yes.
The Supreme Court had previously held that damage caps on common law claims violated the constitutional right to a jury trial. See Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers, 376 S.W.3d 633 (Mo. 2012). However, the Supreme Court has also held that damage caps on statutory causes of action (e.g., wrongful death claims) did not violate the right to a jury trial because such actions did not exist under the common law when the people of Missouri enshrined the right to a jury trial in the state constitution in 1820. See Sanders v. Ahmed, 364 S.W.3d 195 (Mo. 2012).
Missouri courts have also held that the legislature may abolish or replace a common law cause of action. In Holder v. Elms Hotel Co., 92 S.W.2d 620 (Mo. 1936), the Supreme Court held that the constitution “does not forbid" the use of legislative power “to change or abolish existing statutory and common-law remedies." Consistent with this precedent, the Missouri legislature has adopted workers’ compensation laws and thereby abolished common law actions by employees against their employers. Missouri has also abolished other common law actions (e.g., the tort of alienation of affections).
In 2015, and in an apparent response to the Watts decision, the Missouri legislature abolished common law actions for tort claims against health care providers, but replaced those actions with a new statutory cause of action. See RSMo § 538.210 (“A statutory cause of action for damages against a health care provider for personal injury or death arising out of the rendering of or failure to render health care services is hereby created, replacing any such common law cause of action.”). The new statutory action also contained damage caps.
This week, in Ordinola, the Supreme Court held that section 538.210 and its damage caps did not violate the constitution’s right to jury trial. Accordingly, this ruling may provide a road map for tort reform advocates to use in abolishing common law actions (e.g., negligence claims generally) and replacing them with statutory causes of action that are subject to damage caps.
The Ordinola opinion by Judge Zel Fischer is available below, and was joined by Chief Justice Paul Wilson and Judges Mary Russell, Brent Powell, and Patricia Breckenridge; Judge George Draper dissented; newly appointed Judge Robin Ransom did not participate in the opinion.
Mr. Blomberg is a partner at Lathrop GPM, and is based in Kansas City, Missouri. His law practice focuses on litigation and appeals.