"In suits at common law, trial by jury in civil cases is as essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature." [Emphasis supplied.] James Madison
"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
At the end of July, the Missouri Supreme Court did what a supreme court should. It courageously approached a constitutional question and decided a case based on what is right and fair, not what is most accepted by the most powerful. The unconstitutional law capped non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, insulating health care providers from personal and professional responsibility when their negligent acts cause harm to their patients. The case before the court involved a brain injured baby, who suffered a catastrophic deprivation of oxygen to his brain that was largely ignored by the obstetrical team who provided care to him and his mother. The child, the most vulnerable of all litigants, received a $5 million jury verdict. But the jury's decision was replaced by the legislature's limit of $350,000. The child's family appealed, asking for the jury's verdict to be reinstated. The Missouri Supreme Court concluded that damage awards are the job of the jury, and the legislature's attempt to take that job away amounted to a deprivation of the child's constitutional right to a jury trial. The Court reinstated the jury verdict.
The founding fathers of our country rightly determined long ago that the jury trial was a fundamental guarantor of democracy. Six or twelve citizens, vested with the power to decide a case and assess damages, are the quintessential check and balance against the natural impulses of society to organize its power and wealth in an elite, privileged class. Without a jury of common citizens empowered to punish or level the playing field, the power and wealth of the elite class (the "power elite") would grow unchecked until it consumed everything in its sight. The power elite could exploit underprivileged citizens with impunity, put profits over safety without repercussion, and never be held accountable to anyone for its transgressions, all in the name of enhancing and increasing its power and wealth. Indeed, the jury system was the true democratic referee that gave a free, capitalist society what it could never develop on its own: a conscience. For this reason, American democracy would be the greatest engine for both economic and social development on Earth.
It is no surprise that damage caps are the result of lobbying efforts paid for by big insurance companies, big business interests, hospitals, and the chamber of commerce. In a government whose legislative and executive branches can be bought and paid for by the power elite, the only chance the rest of us have is an independent judicial branch. The Missouri Supreme Court proved this to be true, and it lived up to its charge as envisioned by the founders of American democracy. Bravo!
For an article on the Missouri case, click here. For a copy of the Missouri Supreme Court's opinion, click here.