This morning, Channel 4 News reported that the Florida Supreme Court handed down a landmark opinion that rejected medical malpractice caps and ruled that a 2003 law limiting damages in wrongful death medical-malpractice lawsuits is unconstitutional.
The caps on damages were part of a law that then-Republican Governor, Jeb Bush, pushed in 2003 in an effort to lower the cost of malpractice insurance rates and to keep doctors from moving out of state. Supporters at the time called skyrocketing insurance rates a crisis.
In a 5-2 decision, the Court said the caps in such cases violate the equal protection guarantee in the Florida’s Constitution. “The cap on non-economic damages serves no purpose other than to arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members,” the Court wrote. Non-economic damages are for pain and suffering, among other things. Economic awards, which have no cap, refer to lost wages or medical costs. The Court questioned whether there was ever a crisis that needed to be addressed, but said even if there was, it no longer exists. “No rational basis currently exists (if it ever existed) between the cap imposed by section 766.118 and any legitimate state purpose, the Court said in its decision. The ruling doesn’t address caps in malpractice cases where the patient doesn’t die.
The original case addressed the death of 20-year-old Michelle McCall, who went to a Fort Walton Beach hospital in February 2006 to give birth to her son and was suffering from a serious condition known as preeclampsia Within days, McCall died from complications related to severe bleeding. The McCall case is the first test of the damages caps to reach the Supreme Court. While her death occurred at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, McCall’s estate sued the federal government because she was part of a military family and was treated by Air Force medical staff. A federal judge sided with the family’s arguments that McCall had not received proper care and found that her survivors should receive $2 million in non-economic damages. But because of the state law limiting such damages, the award was reduced to $1 million. The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that the damage limits did not violate the Federal Constitution, but it said the Florida Supreme Court should consider state constitutional issues. In a brief filed last year with the Supreme Court, the McCall estate’s attorneys argued that the damage limits infringe on the rights of severely injured people and also questioned the Legislature’s justification that the caps were needed because of a malpractice insurance “crisis.” In part, the brief contends the 2003 law violates the constitutional right of access to the courts. “The Legislature has broad powers and an array of options to make Florida more financially attractive to physicians,” the brief says. “If the Legislature’s objective was to lower medical malpractice premiums, less restrictive means, such as regulating those premiums, which do not adversely affect anyone’s constitutional rights, are readily available.”
Click here to read the entirety of the decision: