Constitutional Law

Med-mal damages cap violates Florida Constitution, state supreme court says

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled in a 5-2 opinion that the state’s cap on noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases violates the right to equal protection under the state constitution.

In a plurality opinion (PDF), Justice R. Fred Lewis also said the damages cap did not bear a rational relationship to an “alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida.” A legislative conclusion that the state was in the midst of such a crisis, threatening access to health care, “is dubious and questionable at the very best,” Lewis said.

Three concurring justices would find an equal protection violation, but did not agree with Lewis’ “expansive review” of the legislature’s policy findings.

The court ruled in response to certified questions by the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a medical malpractice suit against the federal government. Michelle McCall, 20, died in 2006 after treatment by Air Force doctors during the birth of her son.

McCall’s estate, parents and the father of her son sued. They were awarded $2 million in noneconomic damages, but the amount was reduced to $1 million under the applicable cap.

The Florida law limits noneconomic damages in med-mal wrongful-death cases to $500,000 per claimant, but caps the aggregate award at $1 million.

“The statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages fails,” Lewis wrote, “because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants. … The greater the number of survivors and the more devastating their losses are, the less likely they are to be fully compensated for those losses.”

Lewis cited evidence contradicting claims of an insurance crisis that was driving physicians from the state. In reality, Lewis said, the number of Florida physicians increased during the “purported crisis.” Even if the state were facing a serious risk of a physician shortage, the evidence does not support a relationship between damages caps and reduced malpractice premiums, he wrote.

Hat tip to @AppellateDaily. The Tampa Bay Times also reported on the opinion.

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