Wrongful Death Damages Analyzed in Florida Fourth District Appellate Decision

The Florida District Court of Appeal recently issued a decision in an appeal stemming from a final arbitration in a Florida wrongful death medical malpractice case. The arbitration panel awarded economic damages for loss of companionship and guidance to the husband and child of a deceased woman. They also awarded the maximum statutory limitation for the non-economic damages of lost support. The defendant hospital appealed the damages in favor of the deceased’s relatives, claiming the panel erred in its award.

The estate filed suit against the hospital and treating doctor, alleging their collective negligence led to the death of the pregnant woman. The estate agreed to participate in a binding arbitration to determine damages, pursuant to section 766.207 of the Florida Statutes (2014), which sets limits on the amount of damages awarded. Noneconomic damages are limited to a maximum of $250,000 per incident, for each claimant. Net economic damages are offset by any collateral source payments and include 80 percent of wage loss and earning capacity and past and future medical expenses, among others.

The parties agreed to the maximum $250,000 each in noneconomic damages for the husband and daughter, so the arbitration panel reviewed what should be awarded for loss of services, support, and attorney’s fees. On appeal, the hospital argued the estate expert’s inclusion of loss of guidance and companionship analysis was an attempt to value non-economic damages, which had already been awarded. The hospital also objected to evidence offered of the wife and mother’s goals and aspirations through a vocational expert as an effort to go around the cap on noneconomic damages.

The testifying expert looked at a life expectancy chart and estimated the amount of hours the father and daughter would have received in “services” for “companionship” from the mother, but she did not relate whether the husband would have used a third party as a substitute for these same services after his wife’s death. The analysis looked at the economic value of services provided by the deceased mother and considered a large range of occupations, including social workers, therapists, loan officers, and teachers. Another expert also valued the loss of support through an estimate of the income the deceased would have earned in her likely vocational path. These estimates did not include any emotional loss by the husband and daughter. The hospital objected to the inclusion of this information, but it was allowed to be heard by the Chief Arbitrator.

The District Court of Appeal looked at the Wrongful Death Act, which allows economic recovery for loss of support and services but places loss of companionship and guidance under the umbrella of noneconomic damages like pain and suffering. This has been reinforced through prior court opinions that considered “loss of consortium,” also known as loss of companionship and guidance, as separate from “pecuniary losses.” Courts found this type of loss to be invaluable because it goes against the social and moral understanding of the unique relationship of husband and child. The appellate court agreed the cap of $250,000 is inadequate for the loss of a wife or mother, but it pointed to the Supreme Court ruling that has held this to be constitutional.

The Court of Appeal did find the evidence regarding the deceased’s earning potential to be acceptable and supportive of the arbitrator’s award. Even though the numbers supplied by the estate’s expert were much higher than the defendant hospital, the appellate court found the evidence to be competent and substantial as required by law. That award remained in place, while the economic damages assigned as loss of support and services were reversed. The case was remanded for the award to be reconsidered.

The Florida wrongful death attorneys at Donaldson & Weston understand defendants and insurance companies will try to limit the amounts paid to injured people in any way they can. Our attorneys will aggressively pursue all avenues of legal relief so that you can have the damages you deserve. Call our office today at 772-266-5555 or 561-299-3999.

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