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High Court Allows Missouri’s Medical Malpractice Award Limits

November 16, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today let Missouri limit the amount of money paid to victims of medical malpractice.

The court, over one dissenting vote, let stand the state-imposed cap on malpractice lawsuit awards, challenged on behalf a girl left blind and severely brain-damaged by an anesthesia error during an operation.

Only Justice Byron R. White voted to hear arguments in the case. Four votes are needed to grant such review.

Today’s action does not set any national precedent, and does not represent a ruling on the merits of Missouri’s law. But the effect in Missouri is just as if the justices had upheld the state law.

The justices previously have left intact similar laws in California and Idaho that limit medical malpractice awards. Many states have tried to hold down insurance costs by limiting damage awards in medical cases and other personal injury lawsuits.

In other action, the Court:

-Agreed to decide whether the testimony of federal trial witnesses may be challenged by telling the jury about their prior convictions for willful tax evasion. A Pennsylvania case will be used to resolve conflicting federal appeals court rulings over the use of admissibility of such evidence.

-Set aside a ruling that ash produced by garbage-recycling plants is hazardous waste and requires costly methods of storage and disposal.

-Refused to reinstate a California law that denied some veteran benefits to men and women who did not live in the state when they joined the military.

-Agreed to resolve a dispute over the federal government’s effort to hold down the subsidies it pays to owners of low-income housing.

The medical malpractice case involved Nicole Adams of Kansas City who at age eight was burned by hot grease in March 1988 after accidentally overturning a skillet on the kitchen stove.

She underwent a skin graft operation five days later. During the operation, Nicole was given too much of a solution used to replace body fluids lost during surgery. She suffered temporary heart and breathing failure, and lost the oxygen flow to her brain for about 6 minutes.

Nicole, who is now 13, is unable to care for herself. She needs constant supervision.

She and her mother, Julia Adams, reached settlements with five doctors involved in the operation. Their claims against Children’s Mercy Hospital and an anesthesiologist, Dr. Jane Jelinek-Boozalis, were tried before a jury in 1991.

The jury awarded the Adamses $2.2 million in economic damages and $5.3 million in non-economic damages, intended as compensation for the girl’s disability and her pain and suffering.

A 1991 Missouri law capped non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases at $430,000. The limit is raised each year to keep up with inflation.

Because there were two defendants in the Adams case, the judge set the non- economic damages at $860,000.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled the limit on damages did not violate either the federal Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection or the state Constitution’s due-process requirement.

The appeal acted on today said the federal Constitution bars any state from depriving malpractice patients of their right to full compensation unless they are given something else in return, such as a guaranteed payment fund.

″The state arbitrarily has chosen to impose the burdens of malpractice upon the most severely injured patients″ although there are no limits on non- economic damages to victims of other types of injuries, the appeal argued.

The appeal was filed by Nicole’s guardian after her mother’s death.

In reply, Jelinek-Boozalis said courts have viewed limits on damage awards as a ″valid exercise of economic or social welfare regulation.″

The case is Adams vs. Children’s Mercy Hospital, 92-533.

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