Add Florida to the list of states that have rejected limiting damages in certain types of medical malpractice lawsuits. The Sunshine State’s top court has ruled that limitations on non-economic damages “imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties” when medical malpractice has occurred and there is more than one claimant.
Non-economic damages are money awards made to compensate the victims of medical malpractice for pain and suffering. The damages have long been a target for Republicans, who say that medical malpractice insurance premiums for doctors have skyrocketed because of “runaway juries” awarding multi-million dollar verdicts. High premiums, they say, have caused many doctors to leave the profession or to locate to states with caps. In many states, Republicans have been successful in enacting legislation that limits the amount of money that juries can award as part of measures aimed at tort reform.
But, the Supreme Court of Florida last month threw out the caps on damages, finding them to be unfair to multiple claimants in medical malpractice lawsuits and it rejected arguments that the caps are needed to handle rises in medical malpractice insurance premiums down and to keep doctors from leaving the medical profession.
“The statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages fails because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to the multiple claimants. In such circumstances, medical malpractice claimants do not receive the same rights to full compensation because of arbitrarily diminished compensation for legally congizable claims,” the court said.
As a result, the court said Section 766.118 of the Florida statutes violated the equal protection clause of the Florida constitution. Equal protection is the concept that all persons are equal before the law.
Multiple claimants/survivors are affected differently and far less favorably than when there is only a single claimant/survivor, the court explained. The court noted a case it decided in 2000 where it had explained that the death of a wife who leaves only a surviving spouse to claim a $250,000 per incident cap is not equal to the claim of a wife who leaves a surviving spouse and four minor children. “In a larger context, under section 766.118, the greater number of survivors and the more devastating their losses are, the less likely they are to be fully compensated for those losses,” the court said.
And, the Florida court noted that the Texas Supreme Court had also struck down the caps as unconstitutional, ruling that, in the instance of people catastrophically injured by medical negligence, it was unreasonable and arbitrary to limit their recovery. Other state supreme courts – Illinois, New Hampshire – have also struck down caps on non-economic damages upon a similar rationale.
The Florida court also took a hard look at the reasons expressed by the supporters of caps on non-economic damages and found them lacking. The Florida Legislature had claimed that the cap on non-economic damages was needed because Florida was in the midst of a medical malpractice insurance crisis of unprecedented magnitude. Sunshine State politicians had argued that increased medical malpractice liability insurance premiums had resulted in doctors leaving Florida, retiring early from the practice of medicine and refusing to perform high-risk procedures, thereby limiting the availability of health care.
The court noted that the conclusions reached by the lawmakers were not supported by the available data. Indeed, the court noted that the government reports it had examined showed that the numbers of doctors in both metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas had increased, not decreased and that applications to medical school had increased.
The court also examined insurance claim activity, noting that a study revealed that in Florida cases which resulted in payments of $1 million or more over a five-year period, only 7.5 percent involved a jury trial verdict – refuting the image of runaway juries entering verdicts in exorbitant amounts to sympathetic plaintiffs. “Such statistics led the authors of the study to conclude that jury trials constitute only a very small portion of medical malpractice payments,” the court said.
Reports have failed to establish a direct correlation between damages caps and reduced malpractice premiums, the court said, relying on Weiss Ratings, which evaluates the performance of the malpractice insurance industry. Based on data acquired from 1991 until 2002, the median malpractice premiums paid by physicians in three high-risk specialties – internal medicine, general surgery and obstetrics/gynecology – rose by 48.2 percent in states that had damages caps, but in states without caps, the median annual premium increased at a slower rate – by 35.9 percent.
The court also noted the opinion of the executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy, who stated that the current “malpractice premium crisis” was nothing more than an underwriting cycle. During years of high interest rates and excellent profits, the insurance companies compete with each other by underpricing premiums, she explained. Then, when investment income dropped, the insurance industry responded by sharply increasing premiums and reducing coverage.
The Florida court ruling stemmed from the death of a young mother shortly after childbirth. Michelle McCall had received prenatal medical care at a United Air Force clinic as an Air Force dependent. The lawsuit was filed by her estate, McCall’s parent and the father of McCall’s son against the United States. The federal trial court determined that the economic damages in the case amounted to $980,462.40. The court also concluded that the non-economic damages totaled $2 million, including $500,000 for McCall’s son and $750,000 for each of her parents. But, because of Florida’s statutory cap on wrongful death non-economic damages based on medical malpractice claims, the recovery was reduced.
Although the medical malpractice case started in federal court, it went back to state court to decide the challenge to the statutory caps under the Florida Constitution.
Unlike Florida’s top court, Maryland’s Court of Appeals has upheld caps on damages.