Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court repealed a 2003 law that placed limits on financial awards in wrongful death suits. Previously, families could receive no more than $1 million in non-economic damages for wrongful death cases resulting from medical malpractice, regardless of the number of claimants. (Non-economic damages are intangible costs that can be difficult to quantify, such as pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life and permanent impairments.) Supporters of the former law claimed it was a crucial tool for limiting rising insurance rates in an effort to keep more doctors in the state.
However, in its recent ruling, Florida's Supreme Court stated that "the statutory cap on wrongful death non-economic damages does not bear a rational relationship to the stated purpose that he cap is purported to address." The sky-high premiums that supporters attributed to litigation damages were actually a product of the insurance industry's underwriting cycle. In effect, malpractice caps had no significant effect on malpractice rates for physicians. In his majority opinion, Judge Fred Lewis stated that even if there had been a malpractice crisis at the time of 2003 law, data shows that it has since passed.
The 2003 law was overturned in response to the wrongful death case of 20-year old Michelle McCall, who died from severe childbirth complications. Her parents were originally awarded $750,000 each by a federal judge; her newborn son received $500,000. When their awards were immediately cut in half in accordance with Florida's law, they filed a lawsuit to appeal. Ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court recognized the caps as unconstitutional, claiming they violated the state constitution's right to equal protection.
Although the new ruling does not affect medical malpractice cases where patients survive, some speculate that a similar ruling down the road is possible. Florida is now one of seven states who have identified medical malpractice caps as unconstitutional. You can read the Supreme Court's full decision here.
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