Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sanders v. Ahmed[1]

Opinion handed down April 3, 2012

Ronald Sanders recovered judgments against Dr. Itekahlm Ahmed for the wrongful death of his wife.  After the jury returned a verdict awarding $9.2 million in non-economic damages, the trial court reduced the original verdict to about $1.25 million in accordance with a state statute that caps non-economic damages.  Sanders subsequently challenged the constitutionality of the damages award cap.  The Supreme Court of Missouri upheld the trial court’s ruling and concluded that the non-economic damages cap that applies to wrongful death cases does not violate the Missouri Constitution. 

I.  Facts and Holding
In May 2003, Paulette Sanders went to the emergency department of the Medical Center of Independence (“MCI”) with complaints of numbness in her legs and difficulty walking.  After she was admitted to the hospital, Ms. Sanders was sent to a neurologist, Dr. Ahmed, for a consultation.[2]  Dr. Ahmed reviewed Ms. Sanders’ symptoms and ordered a change in her medication from Dilantin and Phenobarbital to Depakote.[3]
Ms. Sanders remained in the hospital for the next week and eventually suffered a focal seizure that required emergency medical intervention.[4]  Dr. Ahmed discontinued the Depakote medication.[5]  However, Ms. Sanders’ condition had already significantly deteriorated and she was transferred to a long-term care facility where she remained bedridden for over two years.[6]  She died in August 2005. 
Robert Sanders (“Sanders”), Ms. Sanders’ husband, filed a personal injury action before his wife’s death for loss of consortium.[7]  He later filed an amended petition, in which he dropped the loss of consortium cause of action and introduced a claim for wrongful death.[8]  The defendants pleaded the affirmative defense of reduction, as allowed by section 537.060, in anticipation of any settlements and also asserted the rights under Chapter 538, RSMo, including the cap on non-economic damages.[9] Sanders later dismissed three individual defendants with prejudice and settled with and dismissed all remaining defendants except Dr. Ahmed and his employer, Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed.[10]  During trial in September 2010, Sanders asserted through expert testimony that Ms. Sanders had a defect that prevented her body from eliminating byproduct ammonia that was produced from the Depakote ordered by Dr. Ahmed and, as a result, Ms. Sanders suffered irreversible brain damage that ultimately caused her death.[11]  The jury returned a verdict in favor of Sanders, awarding him more than $920,000 for past economic damages and $9.2 million for past and future non-economic damages.[12]
After the verdict and pursuant to a defense motion for the application of the cap on non-economic damages in accordance with section 538.210, the trial court entered an amended judgment and found that the statutory cap on non-economic damages was $632,603.82 per each of the two defendants, adjusted for inflation.[13]  The amended judgment effectively reduced Sanders’ non-economic damages award from $9.2 million to a little more than $1.25 million.[14]  Sanders then filed a motion to amend the amended judgment, alleging the reduced amount violated the Missouri Constitution.[15]  The trial court overruled that motion and Sanders appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri.[16]
Sanders based his argument on two theories: the limitation violated his right to trial by jury set forth in Article I, section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution and it violated the separation of powers set forth in Article II, section 1 of the Missouri Constitution.[17] 
As for the jury trial argument, the Court noted that Sanders’ claim for wrongful-death was statutory; and had no common-law antecedent.[18]  As a result, the Court concluded that the legislature had the authority to define whatever remedy it felt was appropriate given that the wrongful-death cause of action was created via legislation.[19] 
For his separation of powers argument, Sanders claimed that the legislature, in placing a cap on non-economic damages in wrongful death suits, effectively forced the court to reduce the judgment awarded by the jury and, in doing so, obstructed judiciary powers.[20]  The Court rejected this argument noting that while “it is difficult to point out the precise boundary which separates legislative from judicial duties,” the limit on damages within the wrongful-death statute “interferes neither with the jury’s ability to render a verdict nor with the judge’s task of entering judgment; rather it informs those duties.”[21] 
Judge George Draper III wrote a dissenting opinion, emphasizing that the Missouri Constitution “plainly states” that “the right of trial by jury . . . shall remain inviolate.”[22]  Given that constitutional language, Judge Draper concluded that a statutory limit requiring a reduction of a jury’s verdict, irrespective of the particular facts of a case, makes it impossible for the right to a trial by jury to “remain inviolate.” [23]  Judge Draper further noted that the statutory cap on non-economic damages also violated the separation of powers doctrine.[24]   In explaining his reasoning, Judge Draper stated that the damages cap infringed upon the judicial principal of remitter “in determining whether the jury’s assessment of damages is appropriate on a case-by-case basis.”[25]
II.  Legal Background
Missouri’s wrongful death statute, section 537.080, was originally enacted in 1986 and provided a statutory cause of action against a person, party or corporation who would have been liable for damages to the deceased person if death had not ensued.[26]  Section 538.210 was passed contemporaneously with the wrongful death statute and placed a limit on the non-economic damages that could be recovered by a party bringing a claim for failure to render health care services that resulted in personal injury or wrongful death under section 537.080.[27]  In Missouri, constitutional challenges to statutes have been reviewed under a stringent standard, in that a statute will be presumed to be constitutional unless it obviously and unmistakably violates the Missouri Constitution.[28]  Constitutional challenges to Missouri statutory law have commonly involved claims of supposed violations of Article I, section 22(a) and Article II, section 1 of the Missouri Constitution.[29]  
Article I, section 22(a) provides for a plaintiff’s right to trial by jury and guarantees “that all the substantial incidents and consequences, which pertained to the right of trial by jury are beyond the reach of hostile legislation . . . [and] that the right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate.”[30]
In Adams v. Children’s Mercy Hospital, a severely injured patient brought suit against a defendant hospital for medical negligence and the jury awarded the plaintiff $13 million in non-economic damages.[31]  That amount was subsequently lowered as directed by section 538.210, and the plaintiff appealed the reduction claiming the statutory cap violated her right to trial by jury as guaranteed by Article I, section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution.[32]  The Supreme Court of Missouri upheld the reduction in damages, and stated that section 538.210 only applies after the jury completes its constitutional task of fact finding; therefore, the cap does not infringe upon the right to a trial by jury.[33]  Furthermore, the court stated that the legislature not only had the power to abolish common law causes of action, but also had the power to limit recovery in those common law actions.[34]
However, wrongful death is not a common law cause of action; rather, a plaintiff’s right to bring such a claim is statutorily based and independent of any predicate tort, such as medical negligence.[35]  Regardless of wrongful death statutory origins, the Supreme Court of Missouri has concluded that “the legislature has the power to define the remedy available if it creates the cause of action.”[36] 
Constitutional challenges to Missouri statutes have also arisen under the separation of powers doctrine set forth in Article II, section 1 of the Missouri Constitution.[37]  The Supreme Court of Missouri has recognized that the separation of powers doctrine is fundamental to the democratic system because it limits the centralization of powers and the abuses that would arise from such centralization.[38] 
In Estate of Overbey v. Chad Franklin Nat’l Auto Sales N., LLC., 361 S.W.3d 364, an automotive customer brought a claim for negligent representation against an auto dealer and was awarded $1 million in punitive damages.[39]  The award was lowered to $500,000 in accordance with section 510.265, which places a statutory limit on punitive damages.  The customer appealed the reduction in the award claiming that section 510.265 violated Article II, section 1 of the Missouri Constitution.[40]  The Supreme Court of Missouri upheld the reduced amount, and concluded that the reduction was appropriately based upon a legislative limitation on punitive damages and not upon a finding that the damages were excessive.[41] 
The Court further noted that when the legislature creates a statutory right, it also has discretion in prescribing remedies for that right.[42]  Although such provisions “affect the exercise of judicial power, [] they are incidental to [the legislature’s] power to define the right it has created.”[43]
Additionally, in reference to statutorily created causes of action, such as wrongful death, the Court has stated that the remedy available in such actions is a matter of law, not fact, and not within the purview of the jury.[44]  According to the Court, if such remedies were wholly within the jury’s discretion it would effectively communicate to the legislature “[that] it could not legislate; it could neither create nor negate causes of action, and in doing so could not prescribe the measure of damages for the same.”[45]
III.  Comment
The Supreme Court of Missouri has previously articulated its position regarding the constitutionality of statutory caps on damages in certain actions, including wrongful death, and the Court’s holding in this case effectively and accurately reaffirmed that position.[46]  However, in his dissent, Judge Draper III raises several interesting points.[47]
In analyzing Sanders’ claim that the statutory cap violated his right to trial by jury, Judge Draper noted that the limit on damages, in its simplest sense, removes from the jury’s discretion the ability to determine what non-economic monetary amount is appropriate to truly compensate the plaintiff in a particular case.  A wrongful death suit involving very low economic damages, but disturbingly egregious actions on the part of the tort-feasor, would still be capped at the statutory limit in section 538.010, regardless of the jury’s determination.[48]  Justice Draper claimed that this appears to undermine the jury’s fact-finding function regarding the amount of damage actually suffered by the plaintiff.
However, as the majority appropriately concluded, the statutory cap does not violate the plaintiff’s constitutional right to trial by jury because wrongful death is a statutory cause of action, and the legislature has the right to limit the remedies in such actions.[49]  Therefore, the question of whether the statutory cap should be raised or abolished is effectively a question for the legislature. 
Justice Draper’s contention, along with Sanders’ argument, that the statutory cap in section 538.010 violates the Missouri Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine is less compelling.   Justice Draper takes the position that the legislature is not in a position to make such particularized determinations as placing a cap on non-economic damages in wrongful death suits.  However, such a position, as the majority highlights, would effectively hinder the legislature’s ability to legislate; “it could not create nor negate causes of action, and in doing so could not prescribe damages for the same.”[50] In its illustrious history, the Supreme Court of Missouri has never taken such a position.
The majority in Sanders effectively and clearly articulated its reasoning in determining that the statutory cap on non-economic damages in wrongful death actions does not violate the Missouri Constitution, setting uncontrived precedent for Missouri courts to use in the future. 
- Haden Crumpton
[1] No. SC91492 (Mo. April 3, 2012) (en banc), available at http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=53414. The West reporter citation is Sanders v. Ahmed, 364 S.W.3d 195 (Mo. 2012) (en banc). 
[2] Id. at 2.
[3] Id. at 3.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.  
[11] Id. at 4. 
[12] Id.
[13] Id.; see also Mo. Rev. Stat. § 538.210 (2010). 
[14] See Sanders, No. SC91492, slip op. at  4
[15] See id. at 5.
[16] See id.
[17] See id. at 6.
[18] See id.
[19] See id.
[20] See id.
[21] Id. at 11. 
[22] See id. at 32 (J. Draper dissent).
[23] Id.
[24] Id.
[25] Id.
[26] See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.080. 
[27] See id. at § 538.210.
[28] Lester v. Sayles, 850 S.W.2d 858, 872 (Mo. banc 1993). 
[29] See Sanders, No. SC91491. slip op. at 6-10.
[30] Id (quoting Mo. Const. Art. I, § 22(a)).
[31] See 832 S.W.2d 898, 900-01(Mo. banc 1992). 
[32] See id. at 901. 
[33] See id. at 907.
[34] Id.
[35] See Sanders, No. SC91492, slip op. at (page) (citing Sullivan v. Carlisle, 851 S.W.2d 510, 515 (Mo. banc 1993). 
[36] Id. at 8 (citing Estate of Overbey v. Chad Frankline Nat’l Auto Sales N., LLC, 361 S.W.3d 364 (Mo. banc 2012). 
[37] See Mo. Const. Art. II, § 1; see also Overbey, 361 S.W.3d at 383).
[38] See Overbey, 361 S.W.3d at 376.
[39] See id. at 369. 
[40] See id.
[41] See id. at 376. 
[42] See id.
[43] See id.
[44] Adams v. Children’s of Mercy Hospital, 832 S.W.2d 900, 907 (Mo. banc 1993).
[45] Sanders, No. SC91492, slip op. at 11.
[46] See id. at 214; see also Adams v. Children’s of Mercy Hosp.,
[47] See Sanders, No. SC91492, slip op. at 4 (J. Draper dissent). 
[48] See  Mo. Rev. Stat. § 538.010
[49] See Sanders, No. SC91492, slip op. at 8-9.
[50] Id. at 11.