It’s not often that claims are dismissed at the summary judgment stage because of a failure to show that the plaintiff suffered any damages. Usually, the issue of damages is deemed an issue to be determined at trial.
On January 29, 2013, the Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the summary dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claim in Alice Roberts, et al. v. BJC Health System, d/b/a BJC Healthcare, et al., on the ground that the plaintiffs failed to suffer any real damages. The court held plaintiffs’ potential of liability was a speculative harm that never materialized. Accordingly, the court ruled the dismissal of the claim at the summary judgment stage was appropriate.
The case involved a group of patients treated by a doctor who pleaded guilty to federal charges relating to overbilling by using improper coding. The improper coding led to allegedly fraudulent overcharges being billed to the insurers providing the coverage for the plaintiffs’ care. The patients themselves were not billed for the overcharges, but they had entered into contracts with the insurers to be held personally liable for treatment not covered by insurance. The patients brought suit alleging that they were harmed by the overcharging scheme and that they had potential of liability by virtue of the contracts they had entered.
The trial court found the patients had failed to present any evidence of actual damages and granted the motion for summary judgment filed on behalf of the defendants. The Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal, finding the potential liability was a speculative harm that did not materialize.
The concept of “speculative damages” has long been the law of Missouri and most other U.S. jurisdictions. It is too early to tell whether this decision reflects an increased willingness to consider damages arguments at the summary judgment stage of the proceedings. However, there are several important learning points from the decision:
- Plaintiffs should be mindful of the requirement to show actual harm even at the summary judgment stage of the proceedings. The possibility of damage in the future may not be enough to survive a summary judgment motion.
- Defendants may wish to consider a motion on damages grounds in circumstances where actual harm has not yet resulted.
- For both plaintiffs and defendants, a well-versed expert in damages calculation can assist in the prosecution of a motion for summary disposition or in the defense of the motion.