The Florida Supreme Court ruled last month that a law limiting pain-and-suffering damages in medical malpractice cases is unconstitutional, rejecting a controversial change that the Legislature and then-Gov. Jeb Bush approved in 2003. The Justices were sharply divided, with the four-member majority finding that the caps on “non-economic” damages violated equal-protection rights.
The majority also disputed that a malpractice insurance “crisis” exists – a justification that lawmakers used in approving the limits. The majority opinion stated:
We conclude that the caps on noneconomic damages … arbitrarily reduce damage awards for plaintiffs who suffer the most drastic injuries. The majority opinion was shared by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. We further conclude that because there is no evidence of a continuing medical malpractice insurance crisis justifying the arbitrary and invidious discrimination between medical malpractice victims, there is no rational relationship between the personal injury noneconomic damage caps … and alleviating this purported crisis.
Justice Ricky Polston, in a dissent, joined by justices Charles Canady and Alan Lawson, said the majority was overstepping its role.
The ruling, which came in a case from Broward County, dealt with malpractice lawsuits that allege personal injuries. It was effectively an extension of a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that found caps unconstitutional in wrongful-death malpractice cases. Lawmakers and Gov. Bush spent months debating caps and other changes in the malpractice system in 2003. Doctors were claiming there was a crisis of high insurance premiums.
The damage limits would definitely hurt injured patients. Gov. Bush ultimately signed the law that capped damages at different amounts, depending on factors such as the numbers of claimants in lawsuits and the types of Defendants.
The Broward County case decided by the Supreme Court began after dental assistant Susan Kalitan went into surgery in 2007 for carpal-tunnel syndrome and ended up with a perforated esophagus because of tubes inserted into her mouth and esophagus during the anesthesia process.
Ms. Kalitan filed a lawsuit in 2008 against the North Broward Hospital District and other Defendants. A jury awarded $4 million in non-economic damages, but the amount was reduced by about $2 million because of the caps in the 2003 law. The 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that the damage caps were unconstitutional, pointing to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in the wrongful-death case.
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