Malpractice lawsuits hit 10-year low in Missouri

Physicians credit the state's damage cap. But the tort reforms face a state Supreme Court challenge.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted Nov. 12, 2009

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New medical liability lawsuit filings in Missouri reached a 10-year low, according to a recent report by the state Dept. of Insurance, Financial Institutions & Professional Registration (link).

The study, released in September, looked at the number of malpractice suits filed in 2008 and found that 1,215 new claims were filed, the lowest number since 1999. The state also recorded 3,017 claims still open in 2008 -- an all-time low in the 30 years the state has tracked the data.

Average claims payments stood at $202,612 in 2008, a slight uptick from $195,239 in 2007, according to the report. The highest average payment recorded so far was $253,888 in 2005.

The Missouri State Medical Assn. attributed the improvements to a package of tort reform measures the Legislature passed in 2005; the centerpiece was a $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages in medical liability cases. Other provisions included restrictions on where lawsuits may be filed and requirements that plaintiffs attach an expert opinion, or certificate of merit, with the initial filing of a case.

MSMA Government Relations Director Tom Holloway said doctors' liability insurance rates have stabilized statewide and dropped in some areas since the reforms' passage. The state also has more physicians now than it did prior to tort reform.

"Millions of dollars that five years ago were going to insurance premiums are now going into the health care system to provide better access," Holloway said.

But the reform measures are the subject of a constitutional challenge pending before the state Supreme Court, and a decision overturning the law could take the positive liability climate with it, physicians said. The MSMA and the Litigation Center of the American Medical Association and State Medical Societies plan to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, urging the high court to uphold the reform law.

A trial court rejected arguments from plaintiff lawyers that the cap and other reforms violate patients' equal protection and jury trial rights when it reduced a jury's $1 million noneconomic damage award to the state's cap.

As of this article's deadline, oral arguments in Klotz v. St. Anthony's had not been scheduled.

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