The Importance of the Florida Supreme Court Medical Malpractice Decision
As discussed earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court issued an important decision in Estate of McCall v. USA in which it found that arbitrary caps on non-economic damages in certain medical malpractice cases violated the state constitution. The case was decided by a clear majority of the court in a 5-2 ruling that will have significant long-term impacts on many Florida residents harmed by negligence in and out of the hospital.
The original case involved a federal claim made following the tragic death of a 20-year old woman who died shortly after childbirth in 2006. The woman’s surviving family members argued that the care she received on the Air Force base was inadequate, thus leading to their filing a complaint under the Federal Tort Claims Act against the federal government.
The case went to trial where a judge agreed that the woman’s death was caused by the negligent medical care that she received at the facility. The judge then determined that the family’s losses totalled nearly $3 million–around $1 million in economic damages and $2 million for “non-economic damages.” However, because of a state law which artificially caps non-economic damages in these cases, that portion of the award was automatically cut in half.
On appeal, the federal circuit court upheld the application of the statutory cap, but noted that there were no state precedents on whether the applicable law violated the Florida Constitution. As a result, the federal appeals court asked the highest court on the state level–the Florida Supreme Court–to answer specific questions about the constitutionality of the damage cap law. The Florida Supreme Court is the final arbiter on state law questions.
This month, the state high court reached its decision, striking down the law as violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. The ruling noted that the law “imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties.” The opinion went on to explain that the claimed purpose of the cap–to address a “medical malpractice insurance crisis”–is illusory.
This is an important win for all those who believe that the civil justice system must address each case individually, based on the specific facts and circumstances in each matter. This ruling is technically limited to claims for non-economic damages in wrongful death cases–because those were the facts in this specific case. However, a future challenge to the law with regard to medical malpractice where a patient is injured, but not killed, will likely rely strongly on the logic offered in this opinion.
Following this ruling, all families who lose a loved one as a result of medical malpractice will be able to have their damages assessed by a judge or jury–not based on artificial decisions from lawmakers years prior. Hopefully, the law will soon be extended to cover all those hurt by medical malpractice, regardless of the extent of their injuries. The decision was heralded around the country, as patient rights advocates in other states are already using the logic of this opinion in legal challenges in their own jurisdictions.
But this case does not settle the matter in Florida. Following the opinion, some state lawmakers have already introduced new legislation that might curtail the rights of injured patients in other ways. For example, a proposal has already been heard by the Florida House Judiciary Committee that would change various procedural rules and base all recovery in medical error cases on rigid compensation systems.
It remains important for local families to vigorously advocate for their rights to ensure they have access to the compensation they need to recover as fully as possible following preventable negligence. Please contact the legal team at Pita Weber & Del Prado to learn more about your legal rights following medical malpractice.