Florida’s highest court recently declared unconstitutional a state law that limited the amount of money plaintiffs could collect for the loss of a loved one due to medical malpractice. The decision, made by a 5 to 2 majority, ruled that the law was an unlawful breach of the Florida Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.
As discussed by Reuters, the decision revolved around a challenged law that had capped medical malpractice claims at one million dollars. The tort cap was passed by the Republican-led legislature in 2003 and signed into law by then governor Jeb Bush. Ten years ago, supporters of the bill alleged that the limit was required to reduce insurance rates and keep doctors from moving out of state.
The damage award limits applied to situations where a patient died due to negligent care from their healthcare provider, and its existence made Florida one of over 30 states with some sort of ceiling on malpractice claims. Now that the law has been struck down, Florida has joined a group of six other states eliminating such laws.
The Court Opinion
In its decision the Florida Supreme court held “[t]he statutory cap on wrongful death non-economic 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.” The court reasoned that, “[t]he cap on non-economic damages serves no purpose other than to arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members,”
Regarding the existence of the “medical malpractice crisis” cited by supporters of the 2003 law the court wrote, “even if there had been a medical malpractice crisis in Florida at the turn of the century, the current data reflects that it has subsided.” The court went on to say, “[n]o rational basis currently exists (if it ever existed) between the cap imposed … and any legitimate state purpose.”
The constitutionality of the law came before the court on appeal after a trial judge limited his verdict to be consistent with the cap. The parents of Michelle McCall brought the suit after their daughter died from severe bleeding during childbirth. The original verdict awarded $750,000 to each of Ms. McCall’s parents and $500,000 to Ms. McCall’s son who survived the delivery.
Advocates for striking down the law had argued that caps on damages were “fundamentally unfair to the victims of medical negligence,” according to ABC News. Speaking on behalf of the Florida Justice Association, Debra Harmon said, “when little kids lose their mommy or daddy because of medical malpractice, they’re absolutely victims.”
The Florida Supreme Court’s recent decision does not affect the portion of the law limiting malpractice awards when no death is involved. Although, the question of whether or not that aspect of the law is constitutional is expected to come before the court in the future.