Will the Florida Supreme Court Strike Down Caps on “Noneconomic” Damages?

In 2003, Florida lawmakers decided to limit “noneconomic” damages in medical malpractice cases. This means even when a jury decides a plaintiff is entitled to a certain amount of compensation for injuries sustained due to a medical provider’s negligence, the judge may reduce the award to ensure it complies with the legislature’s arbitrary cap. But a case pending before the Florida Supreme Court may lead to the end of medical malpractice caps, which would be good news for victims and their families.

The plaintiff in this case underwent wrist surgery at a Broward County hospital. The surgery required general anesthesia. While intubating the plaintiff, the anesthesiologist perforated her esophagus. Upon waking, the plaintiff “complained of excruciating pain in her chest and back.” She later required emergency surgery and had to be placed in a drug-induced coma. And even after requiring multiple additional surgeries and extensive therapy, the plaintiff “continues to suffer from pain throughout the upper half of her body and from serious mental disorders as a result of the traumatic incident.”

The plaintiff sued the anesthesiologist and the hospital, among other defendants, for negligence. A Florida jury ruled in her favor and awarded more than $4.7 million in damages. Of that amount, $4 million was for pain and suffering, i.e. non-economic damages. The trial judge, applying Florida’s medical malpractice caps, therefore had to reduce the jury’s award by approximately $2 million.

The victim appealed. In July 2015, the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal ordered the jury’s original award reinstated, holding the cap on noneconomic damages was unconstitutional. The Court of Appeal said this result was required by an earlier Florida Supreme Court decision regarding caps on noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases.

In that case, five of the seven justices on the Supreme Court agreed the cap was unconstitutional, although the justices in the majority did not fully agree as to the reasons. Two justices explained the cap violated the constitutional guarantee that every person receive “equal protection” under the law, because different victims of the same accident may receive unequal treatment should they sue the negligent parties. Ultimately, the majority found the legislature’s reasons for imposing the cap were insufficient to justify violating the rights of medical malpractice victims.

But the Supreme Court’s decision only expressly applied to wrongful death claims, not non-fatal cases of medical malpractice. In this case, the Court of Appeal said there was no reason not to apply the Supreme Court’s holding to malpractice cases. “Whereas the caps on noneconomic damages…fully compensate those individuals with noneconomic damages in an amount that falls below the caps,” the appeals court said, “injured parties with noneconomic damages in excess of the caps are not fully compensated.”

The defendants have appealed the Court of Appeal’s decision to the Supreme Court. In December 2015, Florida Attorney General Pamela Jo Bondi filed a brief on behalf of the state defending the malpractice caps and asking the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case later in 2016.

Get Help from a Florida Malpractice Lawyer

If the Supreme Court does affirm the Court of Appeal’s decision, it would be an important victory for patients and others harmed due to medical negligence. If you or a family member has been a victim of such negligence, it is important to speak with an experienced Clearwater medical malpractice attorney who can advise you of your rights. Contact the Law Office of Paul B. Genet, P.A., to speak with someone right away.

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