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Supreme Court weighs damages limit for uninsured drivers

A woman who lacked insurance on her car is urging the Missouri Supreme Court to strike down a state law that barred her from pursuing noneconomic damages from the driver who hit her.

The court heard arguments on March 29 stemming from a lawsuit that Susan Bridegan brought against Gary Turntine. According to court records, Turntine ran a red light in 2019 and injured Bridegan, who sued him in Jackson County Circuit Court.

A 2013 Missouri law generally bars injured drivers who fail to carry the state-mandated liability insurance from recovering noneconomic damages. Bridegan did not have insurance at the time of the crash; she’d purchased a policy from the dealer that protected its financial interest in the vehicle, but it didn’t provide any liability coverage for her.

After a bench trial in 2022, Judge John Torrence ruled for Bridegan and awarded her $10,737 for her medical bills. However, he said he could not award her any noneconomic damages under that state law — though he added in his written judgment that he’d have “no hesitation” in striking down the law if he could.

An attorney for Bridegan asked the Supreme Court to do just that, arguing that the law violates the Missouri Constitution’s guarantee of the right to have a jury determine damages.

“She didn’t do anything wrong, other than she didn’t have liability insurance,” said Michael L. Sexton of Sexton & Shelor in Westwood, Kansas. He added that barring her from recovering the full measure of her damages “simply insulates a wrongdoer from being responsible for all the damages that they caused.”

But Robert F. Epperson Jr. of Dowd Bennett in St. Louis, an attorney for Turntine, said the law was a valid exercise of the legislature’s authority to encourage drivers to carry the required insurance.

“Driving in the state of Missouri is a privilege, not a right,” Epperson said. “The state very much has the right — and the duty, frankly — to enact laws that protect those people who are using and driving and walking along Missouri roadways.”

The plaintiff’s argument relies on a landmark 2012 Supreme Court ruling, Watts v. Cox Medical Centers, which threw out a cap then in effect for noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases. The state constitution guarantees that “the right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate,” and the court said the legislature could not set limits on common-law claims that were available when the constitution was first adopted in 1820.

However, in 2021 the court in Ordinola Velazquez v. University Physician Associates, said it was permissible for lawmakers to restore that cap by repealing the common-law cause of action for medical negligence claims and replacing it with an identical statutory cause of action.

The outcome of the case could hinge on which of those two precedents it best resembles, as several judges asked whether there was a difference between capping damages and eliminating them altogether.

That question also drew the interest of outside groups. The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys argued in an amicus brief that the law should be struck down because it “nullifies — in totality — the jury’s assessment of noneconomic damages.” However, the Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers and several insurance associations said in a separate brief that the law “effectively abolished a common law cause of action for noneconomic damages by an uninsured motorist.”

However, it’s not yet clear that the court will reach the constitutional issue. Judge W. Brent Powell noted that the parties agreed to have a judge rather than a jury determine the matter, and that no explicit request was made at trial for noneconomic damages to be awarded.

“You may make very good points as to the merits of this issue, but is the issue even preserved?” Powell said.

The case is Bridegan v. Turntine, SC99700.