Can a Law Change Affect the Rights of a Malpractice Victim Retroactively?

When a law changes, the question often arises as to when it is actually effective and whether it can affect or change the rights of parties that may have filed a lawsuit when the old laws were in effect. A new case discusses this principle in the context of medical malpractice.

Law Changes and Retroactivity

It is generally accepted that when a law changes that affects substantive rights, the law change is not retroactive. If the law changed to say that you could only own two dogs, for example, and you already owned three, the change would not apply to you. Law changes that only change procedure (such as how the courts operate), however, generally are retroactive.

In 2002, the law changed limiting the amount of noneconomic damages that could be awarded to a medical malpractice victim by a jury. As you may imagine, at the time the law was enacted, there were many malpractice cases that were filed and being litigated. The question addressed by the Florida Supreme Court was whether the limitation affected those cases.

Malpractice Award Reduced

The case arose when a patient had melanoma surgery. A second doctor recommended that to avoid the risk of residual melanoma, a second surgery should be performed, and it was. However, that second surgery went bad, causing the victim severe problems walking that she will have for the rest of her life.

The victim sued the second doctor, alleging the second surgery was unnecessary and negligently performed. A jury awarded her $1.45 million in noneconomic damages. Pursuant to the law change, which had gone into effect while the case was pending, the defendant sought to reduce that award to the new $500,000 cap, which the court granted.

Supreme Court Rules No Retroactivity

The victim appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. The question was whether the victim’s rights accrued when the malpractice occurred (before the statute was enacted), or when the jury award was decided (after the statute was enacted). If it was the latter, the law would apply, thus limiting the damage award.

The Supreme Court noted that a cause of action for malpractice accrues when the malpractice actually occurs. That is, the victim has a right to recovery upon the malpractice occurrence that can’t be taken away or limited by a substantive law change after the fact. It didn’t matter that the jury’s decision was after the law change; the victim’s rights had vested before the law changed, and thus, the law could not be applied retroactively.

Medical Malpractice cases have complex statutory structures, and require attorneys that practice in that area. If you have been a victim of medical malpractice, talk to the Miami personal injury attorneys at Gerson & Schwartz, P.A. today for a free consultation about your injury case.

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