Florida has become the seventh state to declare medical malpractice award limits unconstitutional. The decision was spurred by a 2011 medical malpractice lawsuit in which a 20-year-old woman died while being treated by a U.S. Air Force doctor at Fort Walton BeachMedicalCenter. The suit was filed against the federal government and alleged that Michelle McCall bled to death following a cesarean section for the birth of her son in February 2006. A jury awarded her family $2 million in non-economic damages, but because of statutory caps enacted in 2003, the award was reduced to $1 million. An appeal, failed at the federal level, but the U.S. District Court in Atlanta requested that Florida’s Supreme Court review the case for constitutional issues. This led to more than two years of review by the courts, but justice was finally served.
In the 5-2 decision, the court said “the caps on non-economic damages serve no purpose other than to arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members” and it violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause. The Court also rejected the damage awards as arbitrary and unfair, blaming the Legislature for creating an “alleged medical malpractice crisis.”
The damage caps in Florida were initially pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, with the support of doctors, hospitals and insurance companies who viewed trials lawyers as their political nemesis. They argued that reforms were needed to curb the “explosion of medical malpractice costs,” which they said were forcing doctors to leave Florida or stop providing high-risk services. Contrary to what tort reformers wanted you to believe, there is no evidence that these “reforms” have had the intended effect – malpractice insurance premiums are dictated by how well insurance companies are doing in the stock market, not by how much they pay out in claims. The Florida Supreme Court even cited statistics demonstrating that, during the purported medical malpractice crisis, the numbers of physicians in Florida were actually increasing, not decreasing.
When a jury verdict is arbitrarily capped, plaintiffs do not receive the constitutional benefit of trial by a jury. If a jury awards $2 million in non-economic damages, but can only recover $1 million due to an arbitrary cap, the victim has not received constitutional redress for his/her injuries. Since every case is different, how can a “one-price-fits-all” system be fair? Victims deserve consideration of their case – their own injuries, their own pain and suffering, their own medical expenses. The consequences to one are not the same as the consequences to another. Further caps prevent wrongdoers from learning from their mistakes; restrictions on recoveries encourage repetitive misconduct. These calculations belong to one body and one body only: to the jury.
This case is yet another example of the injustice of arbitrary caps. Damage caps cause serious injury to our civil justice system in an effort to maximize profits for the insurance companies and large corporations. The connection between health care costs and malpractice cases is nebulous, at best. Medical malpractice lawsuits are not the reason for increased healthcare costs and medical malpractice victims. The best way to reduce malpractice premiums will always be by reducing incidents of malpractice. And, the fairest way for a victim of medical negligence to seek justice is a trial by jury, in front of an impartial judge.
The ruling is a victory for fair-minded citizens who want to put decisions back in the hands of those who hear the facts, circumstances, and evidence of each case, and give careful consideration to what they hear, before determining justice, whether it is determined to be $10, $2 million, or no cause of action.
Although the ruling doesn’t address caps in malpractice cases where the patient doesn’t die, it is step in the right direction. Considering the Courts mention of the United States Constitution Equal Protection Clause, it stands to reason that the discussion will, and should, eventually apply to injuries, as well as deaths. Lawsuit Financial, the pro-justice lawsuit funding company, congratulates the Florida Supreme Court for its courageous decision in support of justice for Florida citizens.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series—Mark Bello is also the CEO of Lawsuit Financial and the country’s leading expert in providing non-recourse lawsuit funding to plaintiffs involved in pending litigation. He is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.