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Supreme Court declines argument seeking post-trial verdict reduction

The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to address a constitutional challenge to a $4.3 million medical malpractice verdict, leaving the award in place.

In December 2013, a Buchanan County jury sided with plaintiff Douglas Stewart against a St. Joseph urologist. In 2009, Stewart has developed a painful abscess near the base of his prostate. His lawsuit alleged that Dr. Krikor O. Partamian treated the abscess with a series of antibiotics but chose not to drain it.

The abscess ruptured, causing an infection that spread into the plaintiff’s penis, scrotum, pelvis and perineum. He was in a coma for nearly a month and continues to suffer from pain and sexual dysfunction. He was in his mid-30s at the time.

The jury awarded $401,727 in past economic damages, $1.5 million in past noneconomic damages and $2,398,273 in future noneconomic damages against Partamian and his practice, Phoenix Urology. It tied for the 27th largest plaintiffs’ win of 2013, as ranked by Missouri Lawyers Weekly.

On appeal, the defense challenged the verdict as excessive and a product of “passion and prejudice” by the jury. The Supreme Court, however, unanimously rejected the argument.

“Given Respondent’s relatively young age, the extent of his injuries, the persistent pain, and the negative effects on multiple aspects of his life, this Court finds no basis for interfering with the jury’s virtually unfettered discretion to determine damages or the trial court’s decision to enter judgment according to the jury’s verdict,” Judge Richard Teitelman wrote for the court.

The defense also had questioned the constitutionality of a state statute that bars the use of remittitur in medical negligence cases — a provision that dates to 1987 and was described in the plaintiff’s brief as “a token attempt at fairness” during an overhaul of the state’s tort laws.

The defendants said the law violated their right to a jury trial. After trial, the defense had urged the trial court to reduce the verdict by $1 million, but the judge declined.

The practice of remittitur allows a judge to reduce a jury’s award if it is found to be excessive. But Teitelman wrote that the court had already determined there was no such evidence in the verdict.

“Appellants failed to establish that the jury’s verdict was in any way excessive and, therefore, failed to establish the necessary prerequisite that would allow the court the option of employing the remittitur procedure,” Teitelman wrote. “Appellants sustained no legal injury from the statutory ban on remittitur in medical malpractice cases.”

The case marks the second time in two years that the Supreme Court has dodged an argument over the constitutionality of judges’ altering a verdict after a trial. In 2013, the court ruled in Badahman v. Catering St. Louis that a judge was justified in ordering a new trial after a jury awarded the plaintiff just a quarter of her claimed actual damages. That case involved the practice of additur — the post-trial increasing of a verdict.

The court in that case, however, declined to directly address the constitutionality of either additur or remittitur and simply said that judges have always had the power to order a new trial if the verdict is against the weight of the evidence.

Stewart was represented at trial by Paul L. Redfearn, of The Redfearn Law Firm, and on appeal by the firm Bartimus Frickleton Robertson Goza. The defense was represented at trial by Timothy Aylward of Horn, Aylward & Bandy and by James E. Meadows of Lathrop & Gage on appeal.

The case is Stewart v. Partamian, SC94120.

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