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Supreme Court strikes down limit on medical malpractice awards

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In a 4-3 decision, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday agreed with a lower court and said limiting certain damages in personal-injury medical malpractice lawsuits is unconstitutional.

The ruling split along the usual lines, with the progressive-leaning justices concurring, and the conservatives—now including new Justice C. Alan Lawson—in dissent.

The Legislature established $500,000 limits, or caps, on what are called “non­-economic” damages for such cases.

The Supreme Court previously ruled they don’t apply in medical malpractice cases involving wrongful death. The 4th District Court of Appeal had extended that decision to personal injury cases.

That court reinstated a $4.7 million damage award to Susan Kalitan, who sued North Broward Hospital District and others over complications from surgery, namely that her esophagus was punctured during the administering of anesthesia.

The majority of Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy A. Quince held that “caps in (state law) violate equal protection” in that some people are injured worse than others. 

“The arbitrary reduction of compensation without regard to the severity of the injury does not bear a rational relationship to the Legislature’s stated interest in addressing the medical malpractice crisis,” the opinion said.

“We further conclude … there is no evidence of a continuing medical malpractice insurance crisis justifying the arbitrary and invidious discrimination between medical malpractice victims,” it added.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, called a Special Session in 2003 to overhaul the law governing medical malpractice lawsuits. Doctors said big-money jury awards were driving up their insurance premiums; some even stopped practicing in Florida.

The state eventually limited noneconomic damages, sometimes referred to as “loss of the enjoyment of life,” to $500,000 per plaintiff and no more than $1 million from all defendants in a single lawsuit.

In dissent, Justices Lawson, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston countered that the limit “easily passes constitutional muster.”

Moreover, “it is the Legislature’s task to decide whether a medical malpractice crisis exists, whether a medical malpractice crisis has abated, and whether the Florida Statutes should be amended accordingly,” the dissent said.

“For a majority of this Court to decide that a crisis no longer exists, if it ever existed, so it can essentially change a statute and policy it dislikes, improperly interjects the judiciary into a legislative function.”

Paul Jess, interim director of the Florida Justice Association, welcomed the ruling in a written statement.

“Today’s ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that state statutes establishing caps on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice personal injury cases are unconstitutional is a resounding victory for patients,” he said. “This is a step forward that will promote safer health care in Florida.”

But David J. Becker, M.D., president of the Florida Medical Association, said his group “is disappointed with the Court’s ruling, but given past decisions, it was not unexpected.”

The FMA “will continue to do all it can to ensure that the costs of the medical liability system do not unfairly impact physicians ability to practice medicine,” he added.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]

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