In 2017, the Florida Supreme Court ruled financial limits to pain and suffering were unconstitutional. In a 4 – 3 decision, the majority argued damage caps violated equal protection rights. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was fundamental in overturning a Florida law that set damage caps in medical malpractice cases.
From the court’s opinion, “[We] hold that the caps…violate equal protection…because the arbitrary reduction of compensation without regard to the severity of the injury does not bear a rational relationship to the Legislature’s stated interest in addressing the medical malpractice crisis…”
Background: Dismantling Damage Caps in Florida
In 2003, former Governor Jeb Bush signed a bill limiting a doctor’s liability for noneconomic damage to $500,000 ($1 million for wrongful death) and limited facility liability (non-practitioners) to $750,000.
Bush and a Republican-led legislature said the caps were necessary to reduce medical malpractice insurance costs or to stem what many called an “insurance crisis” in Florida.
Supporters of the bill claimed physicians were leaving the state to practice elsewhere due to rising insurance costs, and skilled physicians were deterred from performing complex surgeries, resulting in a deficit of specialized medicine.
However, no such crisis has ever been formally acknowledged outside of congress or the insurance industry. In fact, the opposite may have been true.
Dismantling Florida’s damage caps gained speed in 2006 after a 20-year-old mother died of blood loss during a routine C-section at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center.
The woman’s parents and her surviving child were awarded compensation for her death. However, a judge cut the total noneconomic damages in half due to the 2003 law. The family appealed the verdict and the case was heard by the Florida Supreme Court in 2014.
Justice Lewis wrote the court’s majority opinion: “…the greater the number of survivors and the more devastating their losses are, the less likely they are to be fully compensated for those losses…Differentiating between a single claimant and multiple claimants bears no rational relationship to the Legislature’s stated goal of alleviating the financial crisis in the medical liability insurance industry.”
Following the court’s decision, damage caps for wrongful death were overturned in Florida. At this time, the Supreme Court took aim at the veracity of Florida’s “insurance crisis.”
Between 2003 and 2010, both the number of malpractice claims and the amount paid declined significantly. However, during the same period, four of Florida’s leading malpractice insurance companies “cumulatively reported an increase in their net income of more than 4,300 percent.”
According to outside research cited in the opinion, 60 percent of physicians who attend medical school in Florida are now practicing in Florida; only three other states have a higher retention rate.
The court’s 2014 decision influenced the recent case in 2017, which involved a woman from Broward County.
In 2008, Susan Kalitan was injured while having surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. Her esophagus was damaged when doctors administered oral tubes for anesthesia, but they were unaware of her injury and released her from the hospital. She was found unconscious by her neighbor the next day, and remained in a drug-induced coma for several weeks.
From the court’s 2017 opinion: “…even if the Legislature’s findings were true, [the bill] still violates Florida’s Equal Protection Clause because…the available evidence fails to establish a rational relationship between a cap on noneconomic damages and alleviation of the purported crisis.”
Without substantial evidence to support Florida’s insurance crisis, the courts ruled that there could be no sound justification for the “arbitrary and invidious discrimination” of malpractice victims.
Medical malpractice caps are enforced in about half of all states—maximum compensation varies widely and caps are often different for particular types of injuries.
For now, Florida joins a handful of states who’ve also declared noneconomic caps unconstitutional, but there could be a federal overturn in the near future.
The House of Representatives is currently reviewing a bill that would cap noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases at $250,000. The bill attempts to lower premiums of medical liability insurance and to supplement revisions to the American Health Care Act.
For states with caps currently on the books, they’d keep those limits; but for everyone else, the $250,000 cap would apply. Support for the bill is split—tort law has traditionally been left up to the states.
Bill H.R. 1215 would effectively overturn the recent Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down the 2003 bill.
Are damage caps unconstitutional? Does the federal government have a role to play in how we settle malpractice cases? These are questions that will have to be addressed before a federal rule can be applied.
At Heintz & Becker, we’ve been helping Florida victims for more than 30 years. With meticulous preparation and aggressive advocacy, we help victims and their families achieve justice.
If you have questions about a medical malpractice case, call 941-748-2916 for a free consultation, or tell us about the injury online to get started now.