Florida Supreme Court Rules Caps on Noneconomic Damages Unconstitutional
Author: Attorney Jason Macri
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of Florida issued an opinion confirming what many people have known for some time; insurance companies in the state of Florida have been taking enormous profits by convincing the legislature that there is a “medical malpractice crisis” in the State. Insurance companies were able to convince legislators that caps must be placed on the damages that medical malpractice victims were able to receive, thus limiting the financial exposure of the insurance company. As a direct result of these caps, insurance companies saw their profits explode by several thousand percent. The Supreme Court of Florida noted in their recent opinion that there was, in fact, no such “medical malpractice crisis” in the State of Florida and that even though legislators limited the exposure of the insurance companies by placing caps on victim damages, the insurance companies did not reduce the amount of money they were charging in premiums. Instead, the insurance companies continued to charge exorbitant rates for insurance, allowing them to line their pockets with huge amounts of cash.
On March 13, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court issued an opinion, holding that the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages, as imposed by Florida Statute 766.188, violates the right to Equal Protection under Article I, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution. This case stems from a 2005 Wrongful Death Medical Malpractice lawsuit filed by the estate of Michelle McCall. In June of 2005, Ms. McCall received prenatal care at a United States Air force clinic in Northwestern Florida. She had a normal pregnancy until her third trimester, when she began to experience serious complications. She received medical care through the Air Force’s family practice department but was transferred to the Fort Walton Beach Medical Center when the Air Force hospital was “temporarily unavailable” for obstetric and delivery services.
On February 23, 2006, Ms. McCall delivered a healthy baby boy. Her family began to express concerns over the amount of blood she had lost during delivery but was assured that she was stable. During that time, she began to experience blood pressure issues that were overlooked by hospital staff. It was later learned that her placenta hadn’t delivered as expected and an extended period of time passed before hospital staff could figure out how to properly remove the placenta. During this time period, her blood pressure began to drop rapidly and remained dangerously low for over two and a half hours. The Air Force nurse did not notify the family practice doctors of this dangerous drop. Hours passed before Ms. McCall’s issues were addressed. By that time she had become unresponsive. She had gone into shock and cardiac arrest as the result of severe blood loss. She never regained consciousness and was removed from life support on February 27, 2006.
Suit was filed against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) and eventually, the US was held liable. Economic damages of $980,462.40 and noneconomic damages of $2 Million were awarded. The district court limited the recovery of noneconomic damages to $1 Million after applying Florida Statute 766.118(2), Florida’s cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages based on medical malpractice claims. This ruling was appealed, challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s wrongful death statutory cap. The appeal was denied. The attorneys representing Ms. McCall’s estate (Petitioners) appealed to Florida’s Eleventh Circuit Court. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the application of the statutory cap but granted a motion filed by the Petitioners to certify four questions to the Florida Supreme Court regarding the challenges to the statutory cap.
The Supreme Court of the State of Florida concluded that Florida Statute 766.118 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution under the rational basis test. The Court decided that 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 multiple claimants. In such circumstances, medical malpractice claimants do not receive the same rights to full compensation because of arbitrarily diminished compensation for legally cognizable claims. The Court further decided that the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages does not bear a rational relationship to the stated purpose that the cap is purported to address, the alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida.