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The Florida Supreme Court Has Removed Caps on Damages for Medical Malpractice Claims Involving More than One Claimant

Earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that of the Florida Statutes § 766.118 violated the equal protection clause of the Florida constitution. "Equal protection" holds that different persons must be treated equally under the law.

Florida used to have a cap on non-economic damages for medical malpractice claims, no matter how many claimants were involved. The Florida Supreme Court has recently eliminated that cap, ruling that the limit imposed "unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties" involving more than one claimant. The Supreme Court stated:

"The statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages fails because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to the multiple claimants. In such circumstances, medical malpractice claimants do not receive the same rights to full compensation because of arbitrarily diminished compensation for legally cognizable claims."

As an example, the Supreme Court looked at a case from the year 2000, where a case involving the death of a wife leaving only a surviving spouse is not the same as a case involving the death of a wife who leaves a surviving spouse and 4 minor children. The case involving one claimant (the 1 surviving spouse) should not be treated equally to the case involving 5 claimants (the surviving spouse and 4 children). The Court stated:

"In a larger context, under section 766.118, the greater number of survivors and the more devastating their losses are, the less likely they are to be fully compensated for those losses."

Republicans have argued in favor of the caps, claiming that an exponential increase in medical malpractice insurance has caused many doctors to leave the profession, retire early, or relocate to states with lower insurance premiums and / or limits on med mal verdicts. These arguments were rejected, as the court noted that the conclusion was not supported by available data. Also, the court found that government reports indicated an increase in the number of doctors in the state, not a decrease. Applications to medical school had also increased.

More examinations by the court also showed that a mere 7.5% of cases resulting in payments of $1 million or more over a 5-year period involved a jury trial verdict. This refutes the idea of "runaway juries" awarding numerous exorbitant verdicts to plaintiffs. The Court stated:

"Such statistics led the authors of the study to conclude that jury trials constitute only a small portion of medical malpractice payments."

Furthermore, reports do not establish a link between damages caps and reduced medical malpractice insurance premiums. The Florida Supreme Court used Weiss Ratings, which evaluates the performance of the medical malpractice industry, to make their point. The ratings showed that the increase in med mal insurance premiums in states with damages caps had a much higher percentage than in states without damages caps.

This Florida Supreme Court ruling was ultimately the result of litigation concerning the death of Michelle McCall, a young mother who died shortly after childbirth. McCall had received prenatal medical care at a UAF clinic as an Air Force dependent. The claim was filed by her estate, her parent and the father of her son against the United States. The court ruled that the economic damages totaled $980,462.40 and the non-economic damages totaled $2 million, but because of Florida's then-existent cap on wrongful death non-economic damages based on medical malpractice claims, the recovery was reduced even though multiple claimants – McCall's two parents and her son – were involved.

This medical malpractice case began in federal court; however, the federal courts allowed the Florida Supreme Court to make the final decision regarding the challenge to the damages caps under the Florida Constitution, since it was a matter of state law.

Need a medical malpractice lawyer in Washington, D.C.? Contact the Law Offices of Michael M. Wilson.

Categories: Medical Malpractice