Caps on Medical Malpractice Damages
The recent Florida Supreme Court decision, Estate of McCall v. United States of America, should be hailed by all as a triumph for the civil justice system. What this case essentially did was declare the statutory cap on medical malpractice lawsuits as unconstitutional. Back in 2003, the Florida Legislature passed Florida Statute 766.118. This statute capped the amount of noneconomic damages that a plaintiff can recover in medical malpractice cases against doctors, hospitals and medical suppliers. Noneconomic damages are basically remedies for unquantifiable amounts (e.g. pain and suffering). The caps were as follows:
For Practitioner Defendants (Doctors and Hospitals)
- Permanent Vegetative State/Death = $1 Million
- Other Injuries = $500,000
- During Emergency Care = $150,000
For Non-practitioner Defendants (Medical Suppliers)
- Permanent Vegetative State/Death = $1.5 Million
- Other Injuries = $750,000
- During Emergency Care = $750,000
The stated purpose for this legislation was to decrease the cost of medical malpractice insurance. The real reason for the legislation was the insurance medical lobbyists enacting tort reform.
This new case is a HUGE win for those who have been injured due to another’s negligence. Caps such as these deny people the compensation they deserve. For example (and this has actually happened), a person goes in for surgery and comes out with an amputated leg. Under the medical malpractice caps, this person’s compensation would be limited to $500,000. While that may seem like a large amount, imagine having to live the rest of your life with only one leg.
What really won the day in this case is that all five Justices approved of (and adopted) the reasoning of two other foreign state Supreme Courts that struck their own statutory damage caps. In those cases, the state supreme courts held the caps unconstitutional by arbitrarily limiting damages to those victims who are the most severely injured, while essentially rewarding defendants who injure their patients less severely. The five justices in this case also held that the damages cap fails under the second prong of the rational basis test/Equal Protection Clause (the prong that addresses whether it was reasonable for the legislature to believe that the challenged classification/cap on damages would promote the stated legislative purposes in reducing premiums, keeping doctors from fleeing the state, insurers passing savings on to the doctors, etc.). Hopefully, this analysis will ultimately apply in all caps scenarios.
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