The jurors who were assembled in a third-floor St. Louis County courtroom on Tuesday will ultimately be asked to answer two questions, attorney Kenneth Bean told them in his opening statement.
First, were his clients, Mercy Hospital and some of the doctors who practice there, negligent in causing the death of Lyla Anderson? If they answer yes, then the next question is: “What is the value of that death?”
Lyla was the first daughter of Emily Wampler, who was 26 when she gave birth on Dec. 3, 2017. Lyla died an hour after she was born. She had been delivered by caesarean section after more than 20 hours of labor. She died, in part, because of a compressed umbilical cord that was wrapped around her neck.
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“Her world ended on Dec. 3, 2017,” Wampler’s attorney, John M. Simon, told jurors. “But that was just a tragic beginning for Emily and (her husband) Steve. They were devastated. They were numb. They could not feel anything but pain.”
This is a complicated medical malpractice case that will take several days to try in front of St. Louis County Circuit Judge Joseph S. Dueker. There will be medical experts from around the country who will testify on Wampler’s behalf or on behalf of Mercy.
Simon argued to jurors that Mercy and its doctors failed to intervene early enough, despite multiple warning signs, to save Lyla’s life.
Bean, of course, told them he doesn’t believe his clients did anything wrong.
“This is an unfortunate and sad event, but it is not related to any malpractice,” he said.
What neither attorney was allowed to tell the 11 men and one woman on the jury is that the second question — what is the value of death? — has already been decided to some degree by Missouri lawmakers.
That’s the cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases as of 2022. The cap — originally set at $700,000 in 2015 — limits the liability of doctors and hospitals in cases where jurors determine their negligence caused harm, or death, to patients.
Last summer, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the caps — long opposed by attorneys like Simon on behalf of their clients — were constitutional. That ruling takes on added importance in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last month overturning the right to an abortion because it creates a conundrum for the politicians, most of them Republicans, who refer to themselves as pro-life.
Many of the states that immediately banned abortion after the Dobbs ruling — Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee — have historically had infant mortality rates above the national average.
In Missouri, 6.3 babies per 1,000 births die. The national average is 5.4. The state’s child mortality rates are even worse, ranking 44th in the country. The statistics in both categories are compounded by Missouri’s historically lowest-in-the-nation funding for public health.
In Missouri, Republican majorities have passed an abortion ban but have also refused to fund health care for children after they’re born, and have passed caps limiting the damages a parent can recover if their child dies.
The numbers remind me of that old bit by comedian George Carlin: “They will do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born, you’re on your own. Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know about you.”
Before they were chosen, the jurors in the Lyla Anderson trial were asked about their views of Roe v. Wade, in part to help determine how they might answer the question Bean posed in his opening argument: “What is the value of that death?”
Attorneys who long fought a medical malpractice cap have argued that it’s a proper question for jurors, not lawmakers. But the big-business types that pushed for the caps got what they wanted. Since the caps have been in place, many attorneys in Missouri have shied away from medical malpractice cases like the one going in the St. Louis County courtroom because even with a winning jury verdict, most of the money will end up going to the heavy costs sunk into a four-year legal battle.
That’s not why his clients chose to pursue justice for Lyla, Simon told the jurors.
“The real reason we’re here is Emily and Steve didn’t want what happened to Lyla to happen to anybody else,” he said. “They promised their daughter that they would never stop fighting for her.”
So what is the value of her brief life?
A still-grieving mother awaits the answer.