The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday joined many other courts, throwing out a limit on how much money can be awarded to people in certain types of medical malpractice lawsuits, blasting the Legislature for creating an “alleged medical malpractice crisis” and concluding that the cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause, saying the cap served only to “arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured” or their families.
This is a huge victory to plaintiffs’ lawyers who strongly opposed limits on “non-economic” damages.
The 5-2 decision, written by Justice Fred R. Lewis, sided with the family of a Panhandle woman who died of complications after giving birth.
After heavy lobbying by doctors, hospitals and insurance companies, lawmakers and then-Governor Jeb Bush in 2003 approved a compromise bill that included capping noneconomic damages at $1 million in malpractice cases involving wrongful death claims. Noneconomic damages typically relate to issues such as pain and suffering, rather than issues such as lost wages. They argued reforms were needed to lower the cost of malpractice insurance rates and to keep doctors from moving out of state.
The decision will effectively remove the noneconomic damages when someone dies because of medical malpractice. Victims whose cases were resolved between the time the law took effect in late 2003 and today, however, will have no recourse. The Florida Justice Association estimates there are more than 700 medical malpractice cases pending statewide.
The Florida Medical Association said that the damage caps have since helped reduce medical malpractice premiums and that the ruling would hurt the state’s ability to attract doctors.
Caps in medical malpractice suits have been overturned in at least nine other states, according to year-old data from PIAA, an insurance industry trade association. Additionally, 35 states have some form of a cap on how much victims can get in malpractice suits over non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Florida ruling was limited only to caps related to wrongful death suits. These caps can even apply to living victims.
Thursday’s ruling stemmed from the February 2006 death of 20-year-old Michelle McCall, who bled to death following a caesarean section for the birth of her son at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center. Her estate sued the federal government because she was part of a military family and was treated by Air Force medical staff.
A federal judge agreed with the family’s arguments that McCall had not received proper care and ruled that her survivors should receive $2 million in noneconomic damages. But due to the state law limiting such damages, the award was reduced to $1 million.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that the damage limits did not violate the U.S. Constitution, but said the Florida Supreme Court should consider state constitutional issues.
The damages suffered by McCall’s parents were determined to be $750,000 each and that her surviving son sustained damages determined to be $500,000. But when the court applied the cap, the damages were cut in half.
The court heard the case in February 2012 and spent more than two years reviewing it before rejecting the damage awards as arbitrary and unfair.
How do you feel about this cap on medical malpractice awards? If someone you loved lost his life from the negligence of a medical mistake, would you be satisfied with a cap on the amount of award you received? How can anyone put a price on someone’s life?
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