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The Missouri Supreme Court Upholds a Jury’s Award of Punitive Damages in a Medical Malpractice Case but Issues a Strong Warning to Future Litigants

On Tuesday, March 2, 2021, the Missouri Supreme Court in Rhoden v. Missouri Delta Medical Center upheld a Scott County jury’s award of $300,000 in punitive damages.  The Court held that the facts in the record met the Plaintiff’s burden of proving “defendant[s] showed a complete indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others.”

The Rhoden Court reached its decision applying an earlier version of RSMo § 538.210.8, the statute that allows for punitive damages in medical negligence actions, because the patient died in 2013.  The statute was amended, effective August 28, 2020, to apply a more stringent standard to the application of punitive damages in medical negligence cases.  “Indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others” is no longer the standard to demonstrate the requisite intentional or malicious conduct.  In all cases filed after August 28, 2020, a plaintiff seeking punitive damages will have to prove by clear and convincing evidence that “the health care provider intentionally caused damage to the plaintiff or demonstrated malicious misconduct that caused damage to the plaintiff.”  This is a much higher standard than that used in Rhoden decision.   The Rhoden Court cited the amendment to § 538.210, highlighting the limited application of its decision.

Due to the amendment to § 538.210, the Rhoden decision could have limited impact.  However, if the constitutionality of the amendments to the statute creating a higher burden is challenged, and the new standard found unconstitutional, then the Rhoden Court’s reasoning and holding will control. 

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