Florida Supreme Court Declares Certain Med Mal Damage Limits Unconstitutional

June 9, 2017

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In a Thursday ruling that was split 4-3 in accordance with the well-known ideological leanings of its current sitting justices, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the 4th District Court of Appeal to find that certain types of damage caps in medical malpractice cases are in fact unconstitutional.

In its decision, the court flatly rejected the concept of limited damage awards for pain and suffering in personal injury medical negligence matters.

The Court’s decision reinstated a damage award of $4.7 million made to plaintiff Susan Kalitan as a result of surgical complications including a punctured esophagus suffered as a patient of North Broward Hospital District.

The non-economic pain and suffering damages stemming from Kalitan’s 2008 lawsuit had previously been reduced due to then-existing medical malpractice caps, prompting the patient to pursue an appeal.

Decision Marked by Sharp Divide Among Justices

The four-justice majority in the case at issue held that caps placed on non-economic damages were a violation of the equal protection rights of plaintiffs. The decision simultaneously asserted that, contrary to the Legislature’s claims, there is no financial or sustainability crisis in the realm of malpractice insurance that would justify the imposition of such limits.

The opinion emphasized that limiting potential compensation without consideration of the degree of injury suffered lacks the necessary rational relationship to the Legislature’s articulated purpose of addressing key problems within the medical malpractice insurance industry.

The majority declared that allowing the $500,000 damage limits imposed by the state legislature in 2003 to remain in place would work to arbitrarily and unfairly lower available damage amounts for those who have sustained the most grievous sorts of injuries.

In essence, the opinion serves to extend the Court’s 2014 ruling which found similar caps in medical malpractice cases involving allegations of wrongful death also to be unconstitutional.

Dissent Reveals Deep Fractures on the Court

The majority opinion did not go unanswered, with Justice Ricky Polston authoring a vigorous dissent joined by Alan Lawson and Charles Canady. The result, in this case, they argued, disregards the Legislature’s essential fact finding and lawmaking roles and incorrectly places the judicial branch in the shoes of the legislature in determining whether a medical malpractice premium crisis exists and how to effectively address it.

Polson’s dissent concentrated on the necessary “rational basis” test, maintaining that it did not matter whether the rest of the Justices take as fact the Legislature’s declaration of a medical malpractice crisis, or whether they place any credence in the notion that the Legislature’s choice to impose damage caps has in fact generated financial savings to insurers or physicians.

The dissent went on to underscore the proposition that under the state’s constitutional framework, the Legislature, rather than the Court is charged with crafting policies and laws in response to the facts it discovers.

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