Florida Supreme Court Declares Caps on Medical Malpractice Damages for Wrongful Death Unconstitutional

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by BigSea

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On March 13, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision declaring unconstitutional the statutory limits on non-economic damages in wrongful death lawsuits based on medical malpractice.  This long-awaited decision marked a significant victory for victims of medical malpractice in the state.

The case in question is McCall v. United States, No. SC11-1148 (Fla. March 13, 2014), in which the appellants challenged as unconstitutional Florida’s medical malpractice caps against practitioners of $500,000 (and $1,000,000 for wrongful death) under § 766.118, Florida Statutes (2010).  The appellants’ argument was based on the disparate treatment among claimants who may recover unlimited non-economic damages for non-medical negligence, such as an auto accident, and medical malpractice.

The McCall case arose from a wrongful death action against the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, whereby Michelle McCall died in 2006 at the age of twenty after she bled to death following the birth of her son.  She was treated by U.S. Air Force doctors at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center.  The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida determined that the plaintiffs’ noneconomic damages totaled $2 million, including $500,000 for Ms. McCall’s son and $750,000 for each of her parents.  Such damages were reduced to $1 million after the court applied the statutory cap and denied plaintiffs’ motion challenging the constitutionality of the limits.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the cap, holding that the statute did not constitute a taking in violation of article X, section 6 of the Florida Constitution, nor did it violate the Equal Protection Clause or the Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  The Eleventh Circuit did, however, certify four questions to the Florida Supreme Court regarding the remaining challenges to the limits under the Florida Constitution.   The court rephrased the first certified question as follows, limiting the issue to damages for wrongful death:

DOES THE STATUTORY CAP ON WRONGFUL DEATH NONECONOMIC DAMAGES, FLA. STAT. § 766.118, VIOLATE THE RIGHT TO EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER ARTICLE I, SECTION 2 OF THE FLORIDA CONSTITUTION?

As the court answered this question in the affirmative, it did not need to decide the remaining ones involving violations the right of access to the courts, trial by jury, and separation of powers.  Justice Fred Lewis, writing for the majority, disagreed with lawmakers’ primary justifications for the new legislation (i.e., to thwart increased malpractice insurance rates and prevent medical professionals from leaving the state).  He noted that “even if there had been a medical malpractice crisis in Florida at the turn of the century, the current data reflects that it has subsided.”  Additionally, the majority found, “No rational basis currently exists (if it ever existed) between the cap imposed . . . and any legitimate state purpose.”

The damages that injured parties and their families may recover against health care providers who have committed medical malpractice has been a significant source of contention among providers, lawmakers, insurance agencies, and attorneys since the Jeb Bush administration first spearheaded the effort to limit damages in lawsuits against medical providers in 2003.

The many legal actions that ensued after the law was passed on constitutional and other grounds, together with seemingly inconsistent rulings by Florida courts, reflect the tenuous and divisive nature of the statutory limits.  In May 2013, the Florida Supreme Court upheld a state law limiting the amount of recoverable damages by parents for neurological injuries their babies sustained at birth to just $100,000.  Samples v. Florida Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Ass’n, 114 So. 3d 912 (Fla. 2013).  In the McCall opinion, the court distinguished the Samples case based on the no-fault nature of the limitations, whereas the McCall case involved damages in a traditional fault-based action.  The legislation that was at issue in the Samples case established a no-fault system of compensation through a state-run association called the Neurological Injury Compensation Association (NICA).  The court’s decision was based on its finding that the caps were rationally related to the state’s legitimate interest in providing a compensation system for such injuries, but the court did not opine on whether or not there was a real crisis or overwhelming amount of medical malpractice claims.  Previously enacted legislation in Florida already imposed strict limitations on the types of injuries for which claimants could recover for medical malpractice, including loss of limb and death.

However, the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Franks v. Bowers, et al., No. SC11-1258 (Fla. June 20, 2013) in June of last year was an indication that the tide may be changing in the medical malpractice arena.  In that case, the court rejected as unconstitutional agreements between medical providers and patients to limit damages in the event of a malpractice claim.  In Bowers, the hospital required patients to agree to limit medical malpractice damages by 75% of what the law allows and to require binding arbitration. The court ruled 5-2 that such agreements violate public policy by reducing the amount of non-economic damages (including pain and suffering, mental anguish, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment, and loss of support) from the $1,000,000 allowed by Florida law to just $250,000.  Additionally, the agreement violated public policy by forcing patients to waive their access to the courts and instead submit to arbitration.

The recent ruling in the McCall case on state equal protection grounds highlights the arbitrary nature of statutory limits on medical malpractice actions and restores the decision on the value of non-economic damages, including pain and suffering in wrongful death cases, to the jury.

Jowita Wysocka is a partner at Kravitz Law Group, P.A., representing personal injuryauto accident, slip and fall, and medical malpractice clients throughout the Tampa Bay area.  Kravitz Law Group, P.A. is a plaintiff’s personal injury law firm with offices in downtown St. Petersburg, Brandon, Clearwater, and Tampa.  Attorneys Jowita Wysocka and Ed Kravitz have over 30 years of combined experience in injury law, litigation, and civil trials.  For more information on Kravitz Law Group and our personal injury services, please contact us at (727) 362-1234 in Pinellas, (813) 626-1234 in Hillsborough, or Contact Us.

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