Florida Supreme Court Finds Caps on Personal Injury Noneconomic Damages in Medical Malpractice Cases to be Unconstitutional

The civil judicial system is designed to help make injured parties whole by holding negligent parties accountable and providing compensation for expenses already incurred and certain expenses expected in the future. Damages for injuries may also include recognized setbacks that are harder to quantify like pain and suffering or loss of consortium. These damages are known as “noneconomic damages.” Florida Statutes sections 766.118(2) caps noneconomic damages in medical negligence cases at $500,000 per claimant. The damages can possibly increase to $1 million if the negligence resulted in a permanent vegetative state or caused a catastrophic injury. Subsection (3) has similar caps for negligence by non-practitioners at $750,000 and $1.5 million, respectively. The Supreme Court recently issued a decision (No. SC15-1858) finding these statutes violate the Equal Protection Clause of Florida’s Constitution under Art. I, Section 2.

The plaintiff in the case originally suffered from carpal tunnel. She had surgery to address the problem but suffered from complications leading to additional and severe injuries. The injured patient’s esophagus was perforated when the medical team performed intubation as part of her anesthesia. The injured patient woke up with incredible pain in her back and chest. The anesthesiologist was notified. He examined her and then wrote a prescription for her chest pain. The doctor concluded that there was no issue with her heart, and the patient was discharged that afternoon. On the next day, the injured patient’s neighbor went to check on her and found her unresponsive. The patient went to the hospital and underwent emergency surgery to repair her esophagus and save her life. After several weeks in a drug-induced coma, the patient awoke and began intensive therapy to relearn how to eat and regain mobility. The injured patient has expressed that she continues to suffer pain in the upper half of her body in addition to neurological disorders from the trauma.

At trial, the injured woman sought damages from several defendants, including the anesthesiologist and the hospital. The woman alleged that her injury was a catastrophic injury, and the jury agreed, awarding over $4.7 million in total damages. The noneconomic damages were $2 million for past pain and suffering and $2 million for future pain and suffering. Both parties filed several post-trial motions. The trial court judge denied the plaintiff’s motion to find the cap on noneconomic damages to be unconstitutional. Applying the applicable statutes, the court reduced the noneconomic damages from $4 million to $700,000.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed with the plaintiff that the cap was unconstitutional, applying the Supreme Court’s ruling in Estate of McCall v. United States, which determined a cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages went against the Equal Protection Clause of the state’s constitution. The Supreme Court agreed with the Fourth District’s analysis and use of case precedent. In McCall, the plurality opinion noted the cap arbitrarily discriminated between those who were slightly injured and those who were severely injured, but it always benefited the tortfeasor. The court in McCall determined that the cap bore no rational relationship to a legitimate state objective and failed the rational basis test. The Supreme Court observed that in both cases, the legislative reasoning of a medical malpractice crisis was unsupported by available evidence, and there was no indication that a cap would actually alleviate the alleged crisis. The Supreme Court determined the cap on noneconomic damages in medical negligence cases, like the cap on wrongful death damages, was unreasonable and arbitrary. The Fourth District appellate decision was upheld and the case remanded to reinstate the damages awarded by the jury.

The Florida personal injury attorneys at Donaldson & Weston have the experience you need to help you with your case. Our office will aggressively pursue all of the damages available to you. Contact our office today at 772-266-5555 or 561-299-3999 for a free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Florida District Appellate Court Reviews Future Medical Expenses in Multi-Car Accident Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, November 28, 2016

Federal Circuit Court of Appeal Declines to Find Equitable Tolling in Slip and Fall Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, October 21, 2016