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Monday, Sep 15, 2014
Politics

Fla. Supreme Court strikes down cap on ‘pain and suffering’ awards


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TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court Thursday struck down a state law that limits the amount of money for “pain and suffering” in deaths caused by medical malpractice, saying the cap violates the state constitution.

The 5-2 ruling also is a blow to the legacy of former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who called a special session of state lawmakers to overhaul the way medical malpractice cases are handled.

Physicians complained that large jury awards were driving up their insurance rates and that some stopped practicing in Florida.

The 2003 law limits the amount of “non-economic damages” from a death or injuries caused by medical negligence to $500,000 to each plaintiff, and no more than $1 million from all defendants in a single lawsuit.

Non-economic damages may include emotional distress and loss of one’s companionship, things that aren’t easily quantifiable with a dollar amount.

Thursday’s decision, written by Justice R. Fred Lewis, says putting a limit on those kinds of damages violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause, which provides that no one can be denied the protection of laws that cover everyone else.

“The statutory cap … fails because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants,” Lewis wrote. “In such circumstances, medical malpractice claimants do not receive the same rights ... because of arbitrarily diminished compensation.”

In other words, the law essentially punishes plaintiffs when there are more of them in any one case because it forces them to take smaller shares of money awarded for damages.

Chief Justice Ricky Polston, in a dissent joined by Justice Charles Canady, said the ruling ignores “the Legislature’s policy role under Florida’s constitution.”

In limiting damages, lawmakers had a legitimate interest in “decreasing medical malpractice insurance rates and increasing the affordability and availability of health care in Florida,” Polston wrote.

A task force convened by Bush found that “the increase in medical malpractice liability insurance premiums has resulted in physicians leaving Florida, retiring early … or refusing to perform high-risk procedures, thereby limiting the availability of health care.”

The Florida Medical Association, which represents physicians and had provided key support for passage of the caps in 2003, said the decision was a disappointment.

The caps were put in place to stem the tide of physicians leaving the state because of out-of-control litigation and which discouraged physicians from coming to Florida, Dr. Alan Harmon, president of the FMA, said in a statement.

“Thanks to the Florida Supreme Court, we can be sure that patients will face an intensified access to care crisis,” Harmon said. “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, like Texas.”

But Matt Powell, a personal injury attorney in Tampa, said people with severe medical injuries often have severe mental anguish.

“If you’re a quadriplegic because of a doctor’s stupid mistake, a cap on (non-economic) damages is draconian,” Powell said.

Paul Anderson, president of the Florida Justice Association, a trial-lawyers group that fought the limits, issued a statement praising the ruling. He said “victims and their families will have the opportunity to be fully compensated for their losses. The cap on non-economic damages unfairly punished victims whose lives were permanently altered by no fault of their own.”

The court’s decision followed the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals asking for guidance on questions of state law.

The case involved Michelle McCall, a Panhandle woman who died after childbirth while being treated by Air Force doctors. Her family sued the federal government, which was found liable.

A north Florida federal judge found that her family’s noneconomic damages totaled $2 million -- $500,000 for McCall’s son and $750,000 for each of her parents, according to the opinion.

But that same court reduced the total award to $1 million, based on the state law. McCall’s family then appealed.

Tribune reporter James Rosica and the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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