Healthcare Business News

Florida cap on wrongful death malpractice suits unconstitutional, high court rules

By Rachel Landen
Posted: March 14, 2014 - 8:30 pm ET

(Story updated at 8:20 p.m. Eastern on March 14.)

The Florida Supreme Court declared Thursday that a state law capping noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits involving wrongful death is unconstitutional.

The 5-2 ruling rejects part of a 2003 law designed to lower malpractice insurance costs in the state. Under the statute, the limit for noneconomic damages was $1 million in cases where medical negligence contributed to a patient's death; the cap is $500,000 for cases involving injuries not involving death. Thursday's opinion focused exclusively on wrongful death situations and left the cap for non-death cases intact.

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The case stemmed from a lawsuit first heard by the court in February 2012, brought by the family of a woman who died after giving birth at Fort Walton Beach (Fla.) Medical Center in 2006. Though a jury initially awarded a total of $2 million in pain and suffering damages to the woman's family—$500,000 to her son and $750,000 to each of her parents—the total amount for the multiple claimants was reduced to $1 million because of Florida's statutory cap.

The ruling, written by Justice Fred Lewis, said the cap “violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution under the rational basis test… 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.”

It is now up to juries to determine how much is awarded in pain and suffering damages to multiple plaintiffs in wrongful death cases, without regard to statutory limits or number of claimants, said Nancy La Vista, partner at Clark, Fountain, La Vista, Keen and Littky-Rubin in West Palm Beach, Fla. For La Vista, who represents patients and their families in medical malpractice suits, Thursday's news was a big victory. “A class of people were being treated unequally, and they corrected that,” she said. “It shows checks and balances.”

Neal Roth, co-founder of Coral Gables, Fla., law firm Grossman Roth, echoed La Vista's satisfaction with the ruling. “I was very pleased not only to see the results, but also the analysis that went into it because it makes perfect sense,” Roth said. “I've been saying ever since it was enacted that it was unconstitutional.”

Florida's high court joins six other state high courts—in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, New Hampshire, Oregon and Washington—in finding that some aspect of caps on noneconomic damages in malpractice cases violates the state constitution. Fourteen states do not have any kind of med mal damage award limit or cap, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The state limitation was enacted with the backing of then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who championed it as a way to reduce malpractice costs and total healthcare costs. Supporters said rising insurance rates were causing a crisis driving doctors out of the state, while opponents said there was no evidence doctors were leaving.

The state Supreme Court, in its ruling, questioned whether a crisis had ever existed. "The cap on noneconomic damages serves no purpose other than to arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members," the decision stated.

But in a written statement Thursday, Florida Medical Association President Dr. Alan Harmon disagreed, expressing his disappointment in the court's decision and arguing that the caps have helped to control the cost of liability premiums in the state. Harmon warned that patients will face “an intensified access to care crisis.” He predicted that “the likely outcome will be that trial lawyers will refocus their sights on physicians, meritless lawsuits will clog our courts, and physicians will move to states with a more favorable litigation climate.”

A recent survey by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, a pro-tort reform group, ranked Florida's legal climate as 41st in the nation. This latest setback will likely be enough to put Florida on its annual Judicial Hellholes report when that is issued at the end of this year, said Darren McKinney, spokesman for the American Tort Reform Association.

California topped the Judicial Hellholes list last year, despite having capped noneconomic damages in med mal cases at $250,000 back in the 1970s. A pending ballot initiative would raise that cap to an inflation-adjusted $1.1 million.

“Whether or not any of that percolates into another medical care shortage crisis remains to be seen, but it isn't going to do anything but raise insurance premiums that inevitably will be passed on to healthcare consumers,” McKinney said. “I don't know how anyone other than a personal injury lawyer looks at yesterday's decision as being particularly positive for the state of Florida.”

But researchers have found no evidence that states which have capped damages in malpractice cases have experienced lower total healthcare costs.

Follow Rachel Landen on Twitter: @MHrlanden

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