Florida Supreme Court latest to rule noneconomic damage limits in med mal cases unconstitutional

Posted
by Jim Orr

The Florida Supreme Court has become the latest court to reject statutes that limit the amount of damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. In Estate of McCall v. U.S., — So.3d —-, 2014 WL 959180 (Fla.. March 13, 2014), the court ruled that such a law “imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants.”

The McCall case was brought by the family of 20-year-old Michelle McCall. Michelle died after she bled to death following a caesarian section for the birth of her son in February 2006 at a Fort Walton Beach hospital.

McCall had a healthy and normal pregnancy until the last trimester, when test results revealed her blood pressure was high and that she was suffering from severe preeclampsia. Her condition required that labor be induced immediately. Labor was induced and doctors allowed McCall to deliver her child vaginally. She lost a significant amount of blood and did not deliver the placenta after delivery. McCall went into shock and cardiac arrest. She never regained consciousness.

McCall’s family sued the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act because she was part of a military family and was treated by U.S. Air Force medical staff. A federal court found McCall had not received proper care and that her parents and son should receive $2 million in noneconomic damages. However, the court reduced the verdict to $1 million because of Florida’s statutory cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice claims.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, ruling that the Florida damage caps did not violate the U.S. Constitution. However, the federal court of appeals asked the Florida Supreme Court to consider whether the law violated the Florida state constitution. The Florida Supreme Court has now ruled that the damage cap violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. Estate of McCall v. U.S., — So.3d —-, 2014 WL 959180 (Fla.. March 13, 2014).

The statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages fails because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants. In such circumstances, medical malpractice claimants do not receive the same rights to full compensation because of arbitrarily diminished compensation for legally cognizable claims. Further, the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages does not bear a rational relationship to the stated purpose that the cap is purported to address, the alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida.

Id.

The Florida court noted that the finding by the Florida legislature that in 2003 Florida was in the midst of a “medical malpractice crisis” threatening the access of Floridians to health care was “dubious and questionable at the very best.” Id. Furthermore, “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.” In any event, the court found no “rational basis” between the damages cap and “any legitimate state purpose.”

At the present time, the cap on noneconomic damages serves no purpose other than to arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members. Moreover, it has never been demonstrated that there was a proper predicate for imposing the burden of supporting the Florida legislative scheme upon the shoulders of the persons and families who have been most severely injured and died as a result of medical negligence. Health care policy that relies upon discrimination against Florida families is not rational or reasonable when it attempts to utilize aggregate caps to create unreasonable classifications. Accordingly, and for each of these reasons, the cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages in medical malpractice actions does not pass constitutional muster.

Id.

Damages recoverable for medical malpractice vary from state to state

The American Tort Reform Association and state and federal Chambers of Commerce have spent millions of dollars throughout the country on political campaigns to push for damage caps like the law in Florida. More than half of U.S. states have passed some form of a law that limits the amount of money a medical malpractice plaintiff can receive after a successful lawsuit. In most states, the cap limits only non-economic damages, which means things like pain and suffering. However, there are also states with laws that broadly limit all types of damages that might be recovered in medical malpractice lawsuit.

Courts is at least 16 states have determined that a state law limiting damages in medical malpractice cases does not violate the state’s constitution. However, like the recent Florida decision, 12 states have found a state law limiting damages to be unconstitutional is some way. Legislatures in of some these states have since passed new laws to cap damages.

In addition to laws regarding damages, the time period for bringing medical malpractice lawsuits (the statute of limitations) can also vary from state to state. Furthermore, many states have also enacted special laws requiring a plaintiff to comply with certain procedural requirements (such as first submitting the claim to a review board or obtaining an affidavit from a medical expert substantiating the claim) before prosecuting a medical malpractice lawsuit. It is imperative that applicable rules be followed when pursuing a claim for medical malpractice.

Do you have a medical malpractice claim?

The attorneys at Heygood, Orr & Pearson have the experience and expertise to assist injured patients with their medical malpractice claims. Our attorneys have successfully represented numerous victims of medical malpractice. Among our attorneys’ recent verdicts, settlements and results are the following:

  • Jim Orr negotiated a $6.75 million settlement for the family of an 8 year-old child who suffered permanent brain damage due to medical errors occurring at a VA hospital.
  • Michael Heygood achieved a $2.2 million jury verdict in a medical malpractice lawsuit arising from the premature discharge of a newborn infant from the hospital with low glucose levels.
  • Eric Pearson argued the appeal in Columbia Medical Center of Las Colinas, Inc. v. Hogue, 271 S.W.3d 238 (Tex. 2009), in which the Texas Supreme Court upheld a gross negligence finding against the defendant hospital in a medical malpractice case and affirmed the jury’s $9 million verdict on behalf of his clients.

At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we have the knowledge, experience and financial resources necessary to prosecute even the most complex medical negligence case. If you believe you or a loved one has suffered as a result of medical malpractice, please contact us by calling us toll-free at 1-877-446-9001 or by filling out our case evaluation form for a free consultation to discuss your legal rights and options.