Protecting Our Right to Trial by Jury
The State of Missouri has been at the focus of a lot of media attention this week. Anyone who watches ESPN or Sportscenter knows that the Missouri Tigers make their Southeastern Conference debut against the 7th ranked Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri. This is Missouri's first season in the Southeastern Conference after switching from the Big 12 Conference. While this coverage was undoubtedly driven by our country's passion for football, the real story coming out of Missouri is its Supreme Court and its courage to stand up for its citizens' rights. The Missouri Supreme Court recently issued an opinion which ensures that all citizens of Missouri will enjoy the rights guaranteed to them under their Constitution and, in particular, the right to trial by jury.
The right to a trial by jury is perhaps one of the greatest rights granted to us under our Constitution. The following quotes from our founding fathers perhaps best capture just how important this right is:
"Trial by jury is the best appendage of freedom." – Patrick Henry
"Trial by jury is part of a bright constellation which leads to peace, liberty, and safety." - Thomas Jefferson
"I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution." - Thomas Jefferson
Unfortunately, however, over the past decade large corporations, pharmaceutical companies, the insurance industry and the Chamber of Commerce have successfully lobbied state and federal legislators to change the laws in their favor to make it nearly impossible to hold corporations, drug companies, and insurance companies accountable for their negligent and reckless conduct. Many of these tort-reform laws strip individuals of their right to a jury trial. These laws unjustly limit the right to have a jury of one's peers determine the proper amount of damages that should be assessed to compensate one for their injuries and damages. An example of such a law is Missouri's 538.210, RSMo 2000 which imposes a draconian cap of $350,000 on intangible damages in medical malpractice cases.
On July 31, 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down this law as unconstitutional in a 4-3 opinion in the case of Watts v. Cox. In Watts, a mother filed a medical malpractice lawsuit on behalf of her son who suffered severe and catastrophic brain injuries as a result of negligent health care services rendered to her by her doctors and the medical center. They Jury awarded $1.45 million in intangible damages and awarded $3.371 Million in future medical damages (which was reduced to a present value of more than $1.747 Million). The Supreme Court stated that the $350,000 cap on intangible damages prescribed by 538.201, RSMo200 violated the right to trial by jury guaranteed under Article I, section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution, which mandates in pertinent part that "the right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate." The Court went on to state that once that right attaches, a plaintiff has the full benefit of that right free from legislation to the contrary. The Court found that Section 538.210 curtails the determination of damages because it caps the jury's award of intangible damages wholly independent of the facts of the case and, as such, it infringed upon Watts' right to trial by jury. The Court went on to state that statutory damage caps were not permissible when the constitution was adopted in 1820, and, therefore, remain impermissible today. The Court further elaborated that the right to trial by jury cannot "remain inviolate" when an injured party is deprived of the jury's constitutionally assigned role of determining damages according to the particular facts of the case. Click here to read a summary of the opinion by the Missouri Supreme Court.
We have the greatest civil justice system in the world. It allows all citizens, independent of wealth or status, a fair and impartial means to redress wrongs committed against them in front of a jury of their peers. However, our civil justice system is under attack by laws such as Missouri's cap on intangible damages. Large corporations, the insurance industry, pharmaceutical companies and the Chamber of Commerce have spent billions and billions of dollars to influence legislators to change the laws so they can avoid responsibility for their reckless and negligent actions. Unfortunately, their efforts have been successful. Many states, including West Virginia and Ohio, have passed laws similar to Missouri's that impose strict caps on certain types of damages. These types of laws significantly infringe upon our rights and go against the very essence of fairness and justice.
We encourage you to ask yourself whether you want to give up your rights so that negligent and reckless corporations can profit from their wrongful conduct or do you want to preserve your right to hold these types of corporations accountable. To us, it's an easy answer. As trial lawyers, the attorneys at Fitzsimmons Law Firm go to work every day to ensure consumers' and injured individuals' rights are protected and to fight to preserve our civil justice system. We encourage you to do the same before it is too late. With any luck, you will never need an attorney because someone negligently injured you. In the event that you do, however, hopefully we will all have done enough to preserve our civil justice system so that you have the option to take those wrongdoers to court and have a jury of your peers hold them accountable for their negligent and reckless conduct.