Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down Caps on Medical Malpractice Damages

Normally in a jury trial involving personal injuries, a jury is free to award as damages whatever amount they see just and fit, based upon the evidence presented. Traditionally there has been no cap or maximum on an amount that can be awarded, again, so long as the award is supported by the evidence presented.

However, with the push of doctor and insurance lobbyists, a few years ago, Florida passed a cap on certain damages that could be recovered by victims and their families in a medical malpractice claim.

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About the Cap

The cap was on what is known as noneconomic damages. Noneconomic damages are things like pain, suffering, mental anguish, loss of the enjoyment of life, and other aspects of injury that don’t have an exact price tag on them, but surely, have a value to the person injured.

The lobbyists were concerned at the time about “runaway juries”—juries that were so persuaded by emotion, that they awarded what was publicly perceived to be excess verdicts. And as a result, it was claimed, insurance premiums went up, and doctors could not afford to practice medicine.

So the Florida Legislature passed a damage cap of $500,000 to $1 million (if the victim was in a coma or vegetative state) on noneconomic damages only in malpractice cases. Any verdict more than this for noneconomic damages would be reduced to that amount.

The Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down the Law

Despite the law being instituted in 2005, only this year has it been challenged in a case that went to the Florida Supreme Court. There, a victim of malpractice contended that the statute was unconstitutional.

The Florida Supreme Court first looked at the equal protection clause. Under equal protection, a law cannot discriminate unfairly between two classes of people. However, if a distinction is “rational,” the law may distinguish between two people. An example of a rational and legal distinction would be the laws requiring truck drivers to obtain one type of license and car drivers another.

The court found the damage cap law violated equal protection because the maximum amount was aggregate. That means that the total amount ($500K-$1mil) is shared amongst all possible Plaintiffs. So in a case with two injured Plaintiffs (say, a husband and wife), both would have the share the total verdict. This means they would receive less per person than a case with just one Plaintiff. The distinction between cases with one injured person, and multiple ones, was found by the court to be arbitrary, and in violation of the Equal Protection clause.

The Court also rejected the legislature’s findings that there was a malpractice crisis in Florida. The Court did not find any meaningful data to suggest such a crisis, and even found that in many cases, awards of over $1 mil involved settlements—not jury verdicts. Even verdicts of that amount are often settled after the verdict for less than the verdict amount.

The court cited studies that the increases in malpractice insurance premiums also were not caused by huge verdicts, but just normal economic cycles in the insurance industry. Additionally, even if premiums were reduced by capping verdicts, there is no requirement that the savings be passed on to doctors, and thus, no guarantee that the supposed “crisis” would be alleviated even if it were true that large verdicts are driving up the cost of insurance.

This is a huge win for those injured by medical malpractice as well as their survivors. It is particularly a victory for those who are the most seriously injured, whose lives have been devastated, and who are most in need of financial reparation. The decision also supports the integrity of our jury system, and the faith that we put in jurors to make the right decisions.

Do you have questions about medical malpractice or any other kind of personal injury? Talk to the Miami personal injury attorneys at Gerson & Schwartz, P.A. today for a free consultation about your case.

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