Florida Law and Medical Malpractice Wrongful Death Lawsuits

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medical-1030x687Florida families who lose a father, mother, son or daughter as a result of medical malpractice may be forced to file a lawsuit when the doctor or hospital refuses to accept responsibility.  Most families are surprised to learn that the Florida legislature placed a limit on what they can recover.  Fortunately, the Florida Supreme Court has restored justice by ruling that this law, passed in 2003, is unconstitutional, and can not be used to deny the full measure of damages determined by a jury in a medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit.

The Court Case

In Estate of Michelle McCall vs. United States, the court answered yes to the question: “Does the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages, § 766.118, Florida Statutes, violate the right to Equal Protection under Article I, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution?”  This tragic case involved the death of a young woman who died following the successful delivery of a healthy baby. She was being treated at an Air Force clinic, but when she needed to delivery her baby, the Air Force hospital was temporarily unavailable for obstetrics and delivery.  So instead, she was transferred to another local hospital under the care of the Air Force’s  family practice physicians.  After many mishaps involving lack of communication, physician availability, and delay in treatment, this woman lost her life after bleeding to death.

After hearing the evidence during a medical malpractice trial, a jury compensated the woman’s son with $500,000 for the loss of his mother, and $750,000 to each of her parents for their emotional pain and suffering. However, because the jury’s verdict exceeded the limit on damages for pain and suffering, the trial judge was required to reduce the amount for each claimant by one-half.  This reduction reset the total amount of damages to fit within the limit mandated by the statute, which was $1,000,000. This limit does not apply to all wrongful death lawsuits, only those involving medical malpractice.

The court found the statute unconstitutional because it set an arbitrary limit on the total amount of damages for pain and suffering in a wrongful death case, regardless of the number of family members who were claimants.  As a result of this aggregate limit, the statute created an unfair discrimination against larger families. For example, the court noted that if this woman had been survived only by her son, the jury’s verdict of $500,000 would have satisfied the statutory limit.  But because the victim’s parents were also seeking compensation, the statute required that the jury’s verdict for the son be cut in half, to $250,000. Using this logic, a family with four children in a medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit would recover less than the a child who was the only survivor of a deceased parent. Because of this unfair discrimination, the Florida Supreme Court found that the statute violated the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution. The Equal Protection clause prohibits the passing of laws that unfairly and unreasonably discriminate against certain classes of persons, in this case larger families who lost a member of their family due to medical malpractice.

The Court’s Opinion

I found the most interesting part of the court’s opinion to be its discussion of the legislature’s justification for passing this law in the first place.  Under heavy lobbying from doctors and their insurance companies, the legislature claimed that this law was needed because “Florida was in the midst of a medical malpractice crisis of unprecedented magnitude.”  Supposedly, limits on jury verdicts were needed to lower the cost of premiums paid by doctors to their for-profit insurers. To support its decision, the court conducted a fact intensive review of government statistics and reports relating to medical malpractice lawsuits and jury compensation of victims.  These findings included:

  • That during this so-called crisis, the number of physicians practicing in Florida actually increased, not decreased;
  • Jury verdicts are a very small portion of the total compensation paid by insurance companies to victims of medical malpractice;
  • The legislature’s own task force report suggested that cycles in profits, not jury verdicts, were the best explanation for increased premiums;
  • That insurance executives told the legislature that limits on damages would not have much effect on the premiums charged to doctors; and
  • That the Florida Department of Insurance Regulations’ own deputy director had testified for the legislature that he found no evidence of a large increase in frivolous lawsuits, or excessive jury verdicts.

The court said that “the conclusions reached by the Florida legislature as to the existence of a medical malpractice crisis are not fully supported by available data.”  The court also concluded that there was a lack of compelling evidence that limiting compensation to victims of medical malpractice would have any effect on the cost of insurance.  The court noted that nothing in this law required the insurance companies to pass on alleged savings to physicians to lower the cost of their premiums.  Rather, during the seven year period following the passage of this law, the revenue of the four largest insurers of doctors in Florida increased by 4,300%, even while claims have decreased by over 50%.

Here’s a notable quote from the opinion:

[i]t has never been demonstrated that there was a proper predicate for imposing the burden of [damages caps] upon the shoulders of the persons and families who have been most severely injured and died as a result of medical negligence. Health care policy that relies upon discrimination is not rational or [sic] reasonable…

What This Means For Florida Law

So, thanks to our Florida Supreme Court, families in Florida can be assured that they will receive full compensation for medical lawsuit awards as determined by a jury. However, the court left open for another day the question of whether this law is valid in non-death medical malpractice cases.  Soon, it will be deciding another case that involves whether limits on medical malpractice damages can be applied retro-actively in a non-death case.   Let’s hope that fairness and justice will be dispensed by the court in future cases as well, so that juries, and not lobbied politicians, will have the power to decide the value of losses suffered by victims of medical negligence.

 

 

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