Eliminating Medical Malpractice Caps: A Nationwide Trend?

Earlier this year, we documented the successful effort to raise the limit capping compensation, reimbursement for medical bills and pain and suffering in Indiana for medical malpractice lawsuits. As a plaintiff’s litigation firm, we make our concern for these limits no secret as they impact the ability for people, injured through no fault of their own, to receive fair and adequate compensation for their injury. We have seen far too many tragic cases where victims in states with such caps face financial ruin because they are unable to be compensated for astronomical medical bills or worse, are unable to pay for the basic and necessary care that their injuries now require. The battle over these caps, and their constitutionality in our justice system, is playing out in states across the country. Today we look at the most recent battle that is taking place in the state of Florida, which has come to a head with a recent ruling this past month.

Florida has a complicated history with medical malpractice caps. This history dates back to 2003 when former Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed into law a bill limiting the amount of non-economic damages an injured person could recover to $500,000. Non-economic damages encompass a variety of losses for which it is difficult to set compensation at an actual, monetary figure. These could include receiving compensation for situations such as the loss of vision, the loss of a limb, paralysis or disfigurement from scaring. Compensation for pain and suffering for a life-altering injury is also considered a non-economic damage. Conversely, economic damages, which are not capped in Florida, encompass losses where an actual recovery amount can be calculated such as medical bills, lost wages or lost future income.

The constitutionality of these non-economic caps was called into question in a 2014 ruling by Florida’s State Supreme Court in Estate of McCall v. United States. In the McCall case, a 20-year-old woman died during childbirth after doctors failed to remove the placenta after delivery. A jury awarded economic damages of approximately $980,000 and non-economic damages of $2,000,000 in order to compensate the woman’s son and her parents for their loss. These non-economic damages were automatically reduced to the $500,000 cap under Florida law. However, following numerous appeals, the Florida Supreme Court ruled these caps unconstitutional in medical malpractice wrongful death cases. The Court concluded that these caps violate Florida’s equal protection clause because victims receive a different value of compensation depending on the severity of their injury. For example, individual victims of medical malpractice who have minimal harm receive full compensation for their damages because this compensation falls under the cap. However, individuals with more severe injuries “do not receive the same rights to full compensation because of arbitrarily diminished compensation for legally cognizable claims.”

At the time, this ruling was limited to medical negligence cases involving only a claim for wrongful death. However, as the Florida Record reported on November 9, this rationale could be expanded to all types of injuries resulting from medical malpractice. On October 26, the 2nd District Court in Charlotte County, relying on the McCall ruling, held the cap on non-economic damages unconstitutional in other types of medical negligence cases. Their finding was outlined in Port Charlotte HMA LLC v. Suarez, a case where a jury found two doctors negligent in responding to a woman’s preeclampsia. As a result, Law360 reports that this “led to her daughter being born with severe neurological impairments that will make her fully dependent on care from others for the entirety of her life.” The jury awarded more than $4,000,000 in non-economic damages. This amount was reduced under Florida’s caps but reinstated by the 2nd District ruling that recognized the disparity outlined McCall for compensating severe injuries.

This decision follows a similar ruling in Florida’s 4th District Court that also relied on McCall to declare non-economic caps unconstitutional in all types of medical malpractice cases on the grounds of equal protection. Attention now turns once again to the Florida Supreme Court where these decisions are likely to be appealed by the insurance companies for the liable doctors to determine if these bans on caps will apply statewide. We can only hope that such bans on non-economic damages will be removed and independent juries, not politicians or insurance companies, will determine what is just and fair compensation.