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In 2003, Florida lawmakers placed a cap on non-economic damages in wrongful death cases caused by medical negligence. Plaintiffs could recover only $500,000 or $1 million, depending on how many survivors were involved in the case.

Now, in a landmark decision, the Florida Supreme Court has struck down that law, declaring it as unconstitutional.

Court Awards $2 Million Noneconomic Damages, Reduced to $1 Million

According to news reports, 20-year-old Michelle McCall went to the Fort Walton Beach Medical Center on February 21, 2006 to deliver her child. She had severe preeclampsia at the time, and doctors induced labor. The mother suffered a lot of blood loss, and failed to deliver the placenta. As doctors worked to stop the bleeding, she went into shock and cardiac arrest, never recovering. She died within days of childbirth.

In November 2007, Michelle’s family filed a wrongful death and medical malpractice lawsuit against the United States in the Northern District of Florida. (Michelle was an Air Force dependent at the time of the delivery and was treated by Air Force doctors.) The court determined that financial losses totaled about $980,000, and noneconomic damages for Michelle’s son and her parents totaled $2 million. Because of the state’s caps, however, the court limited recovery of noneconomic damages to only $1 million.

Appeal Goes to Florida Supreme Court

While financial losses include medical costs and lost wages, noneconomic losses include pain and suffering. The family appealed the verdict, seeking the full amount they’d been awarded originally by the court.

The case went to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which upheld the statutory cap, but found no controlling precedent. They sent questions concerning the cap to the Florida Supreme Court, including queries about whether it violated the right to equal protection granted under the Florida Constitution. The Florida high court first heard the case in February 2012.

Supreme Court Rules Cap Unconstitutional

Two years later, the verdict came down. In a 5-2 ruling, the court determined that the cap violated the Florida Constitution—specifically, the equal protection clause. Because this and other wrongful death lawsuits often involve multiple claimants—in this case, Michelle’s son and her two parents—the cap was viewed as being unfair, penalizing victims with large families.

Though the state argued that the cap helped address the “medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida,” the court disagreed, stating they saw no relationship between the cap and its supposed purpose. They went on to state that based on studies, there was no such crisis in the state, and even if there were, a cap wouldn’t help.

Court Argues Number of Physicians Increasing, Not Decreasing

Reuters notes that according to the Florida Medical Association, the caps helped physicians who worried about rising insurance costs. The organization fears that with the ruling, doctors will be more likely to consider relocating to another state. In the Miami Herald, Justice Fred Lewis countered with statistics that showed the number of doctors in Florida was actually going up, not down.

One Comment

  1. Gravatar for jc

    I strongly support caps for pain and suffering damages. Tell me what $50K of pain and suffering looks like compared to $2 million? The real issue here is that courts and the legal profession are totally unable to handle medical malpractice issues and these issues should be handled in special medical courts. What Florida needs to do is have the voters get rid of the 5 justices who voted against caps. That is what we did in Ohio and suddenly pain and suffering caps were O.K.

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